I grew up in San Diego but Mexican wine was never really impressive then, at least in the world market when compared to other wines. I remember going to the Valle de Guadalupe around seven years ago and it was kind of depressing, actually. But a lot has happened in the last five years.
The biggest difference that I've seen is in the rise of the sheer quality of wine and hospitality in Baja California. And a lot of that progress has to do with the commitment that Javier Plascencia has had to reviving Baja in the last decade. I know this personally because I am the sommelier for Bracero, Plascencia's latest alta cocina restaurant in San Diego.
So how do Mexican wines fare against some other wines of the world? Well, the first thing you will notice as you start tasting the varietals from down there is that they are unlike the same wine varietals grown elsewhere in the world. For example, Baja is really proud of their nebbiolos, but their nebbiolo is unlike any other nebbiolo in the world.
This has a lot do with the unique terroir down there and the fact that the grapes are grown with no fog whatsoever (unlike European or Northern Californian grapes that get a break from the daytime heat, because a blanket of morning fog cools them down during the nighttime). So Baja grapes develop a really thick skin, and their nebbiolos come out looking almost like a petit syrah or cabernet—really dark and inky with a great tannic structure. For a wine enthusiast or professional—I'm a level-two sommelier, got my culinary degrees from both CIAs in New York and Napa Valley, and worked at Bouchon in Yountville—Baja wines have the power to throw you off guard.
Some—not all—of these winemakers use reclaimed water to irrigate their vineyards.
However, the most notable characteristic of Baja wines are that most are really big and powerful. A lot of people attribute salinity to wines down there, and consequently a leathery, very intense, raw meat, salty flavor and aroma. This has a lot to do with the fact that these grapes are constantly getting baked by the heat and consequently, their flavor is developing 24 hours a day. At that point, after this tumultuous upbringing, a glass of Baja wine becomes very expressive. The land hasn't really been studied, nor have a lot of the grapes. So a lot of them could be field blends with other varietals blended into them and not pure grapes. There are a lot of variables that the winemakers will eventually be able to pin down. For now, it is kind of random.
Also, some—not all—of these winemakers use reclaimed water to irrigate their vineyards. They have to do this because having a consistent water supply is a challenge that they are dealing with as well, since Baja is still part of California. Water supply is one of the battles that Valle de Guadalupe is going to have to deal with in the long term, and conservation is something that the Valley is something that they are going to have to do in order to stay sustainable.
The good thing is that grapes do well when they are struggling. That's the sign of a great winemaker, you know? When they can make a good wine with grapes that have struggled. In my menu on at Bracero, I support many brands and many families since some wineries are really pushing to make world quality wines. I even put whole portfolios of vineyards on the menu as opposed to just one or two bottles. I just don't pick the most famous producers, too. I pick smallers ones like Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia, Adobe de Guadalupe, and La Lomita. These are some of the wineries that I really respect. I think they are at the forefront of the scene down there.
The key thing to remember is that the red wines of Mexico are usually higher alcohol and a little stronger than you will probably be used to, so it is OK to chill them down like a white wine.
What people who are interested in the wines of Mexico have to realize right now is that it is like the wild west out there. They can do whatever they want on labels, there is no government body that mandates it because the Mexican government favors tequila, mezcal, and even beer production. There are no rules for Mexican wine. Thus, a lot of the winemakers are just doing what they can or following the rules of other countries because there are no rules for them. It works right now, but it will change soon. In the next 40 years, we will see the regulation of Mexican wine and the wineries that don't make good wines or can't keep up—will close and new ones will move in.
It will be fun to witness the Valle de Guadalupe search and develop their own flavor profiles to see what constitutes a proper Mexican wine from the region and to see what grape they even claim as their benchmark wine. If you think about it, there is no benchmark for them right now like there is for a good Napa cabernet or a good Burgundy pinot noir. At this point, they aren't trying to mimic any other kind of wine region. And because they have no rules, they are making some combinations that you will never see in any part of the world.
Hugo D' Acosta has helped a lot with this process, he's even set up his own DIY Baja winemaker school and incubator called La Escuelita. Everybody defaults to him, some people come into my restaurant and specifically request his wines; he's kind of the Mondavi of Mexican wines. Sure there are the big wineries like LA Cetto and Monte Xanic but he's a done everything on his own.
When serving these wines with food, I go by the old wine and food saying: "What grows together, go together." So if you take the time to find the right Mexican wine to pair with the deep, dark, bold flavors of chiles and ceviches—it can be a beautiful experience instead of them competing with each other. The key thing to remember is that the red wines of Mexico are usually higher alcohol and a little stronger than you will probably be used to, so it is OK to chill them down like a white wine, the wines do get really strong, and that can be offputting to some people. As long as you you don't just think, "I can just grab any Mexican wine and pair it with Mexican food" and spend a little more time thinking about it, you should be fine.
As told to Javier Cabral