By Michelle Lopez Arciga
The Aztecs called the fruit of the vine acacholli, the Purépechas knew it as seruráni, the Otomis called it obxi and the Tarahumaras named it uri.
Mexico is the oldest American wine producer, but its industry of quality wines is relatively recent. The wine was consumed as food, medicine and to regain strength.
In Pre-Columbian times, native Indians used wild vines to prepare a drink to which they added other fruit and honey.
These uncultivated vines were laden with bunches of grapes, but due to their acidity, they did not produce wine. Several heterogeneous species of wild grapes existed but they were unlike the European Vitis vinifera, the most suitable species for producing quality wines.
Since wine formed an essential part of the daily diet of the Spanish conquerors and settlers, the commercialization of this drink grew rapidly in the newly discovered lands. Juan de Grijalva is considered to be the first Spanish explorer to have a glass of wine with Aztec officials sent by Montezuma in ancient Tenochtitlan.
The history of wine in Mexico unfolded during Colonialism since the first European vines were brought here by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. Vines were planted from Mexico City, capital of the Viceroyalty, towards the north: Querétaro, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi. The vines achieved a huge development in the Parras Valley, and subsequently in Baja California and Sonora, as well as in the Puebla vineyards (Tehuacan and Huejotzingo).
On March 20th, 1524 Hernan Cortes, Governor of New Spain in the sixteenth century, ordered each settler to plant one thousand feet of vines per one hundred native Indians. Vines were cultivated immediately by missionaries who needed wine in order to celebrate mass. They were the ones who transformed inhospitable deserts into areas of cultivation and wine-growing. Jesuits and Franciscans consolidated the variety of grapes planted by other friars and gave it a special name, the mission grape. Today, this variety is known all over South America as “Creole”.
The vines adapted to their new locations and were productive enough to produce both wine and brandy. After several years, the Spanish crown prohibited the production of Mexican wine, fearing that in the future it might compete with Spain, especially because the vineyards became acclimatized very quickly.
The missionaries refused to comply and continued to spread, however now on a much smaller scale, the cultivation of vines in New Spain and its transformation into wine. Around 1900, a huge part of the Mexican vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera (a hemipteran insect similar to a plant louse, which attacks grapevines) and political problems disrupting the country for many years after the 1910 revolution.
A serious production of Mexican wines did not take place until 1920. However, the wines did not achieve a good quality due to several factors such as a lacking command of the art of wine production, use of defective equipment and an inadequate selection of varieties. This resulted in yellowish white wines, rusty red wines, and wines either too sweet or too sour.
In 1949 the National Association of Wine Producers was created, initially comprised of fifteen companies. Fourteen more companies became members in the period between 1950 and 1954. The implementation of selected grape varieties, the installation of wine cellars integrating oenological progress, the commercial and educational efforts of the big brand names and an improved standard of living of the middle class, have helped to provide the market with quality products, leading to a vivid interest towards a habit of wine drinking.
During the decade of the seventies, production tripled. This unprecedented growth is based on the following: an increased square footage of vineyards, a larger capacity of wine production, storage and bottling facilities, marketing and distribution efforts, as well as human and financial investments. In 1980, the International Wine Organization chose Mexico as the venue for its seventieth General Wine Assembly where it acknowledged globally the increasing quality of Mexican wines. After 1982, when the borders were closed to foreign wines, the boom of the Mexican wine producers suffered a brief relapse.
The steps taken by Mexican wine resembles a path full of waves that come and go. In 1987, Mexico joined the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) which opened the doors to imports, thus leading to the bankruptcy of most of the wineries. Nevertheless, in the year 2000, 42,000 hectares of vineyards were cultivated within our national territory which represents a total wine production increase of one million two hundred crates; 200,000 of them were exported to twenty-seven nations. The United States was the main recipient, followed by Great Britain, Japan, Canada, and Germany, among other countries of Central America and the Caribbean.
Some of the country’s outstanding wines include those of Santo Tomas, Casa Madero, Monte Xanic and L.A. Cetto. The taste of these excellent wines has gained popularity in the international market. Although more rustic liquors and brandies, such as Tequila or Mezcal, still dominate the production, wine growers continue with enthusiasm in order to keep up with the international competition. They introduce new styles of wine that can compete with those in Europe, California, and Australia; wines with fresh fruit aromas, rich red wines with a deep color and wines with intense flavors and fragrances. In other words, wines that can compete with the best wines in the world.
Links to sites of some of the best wines from Mexico: