Vineyards & Wine

Mexican Wine: Why Baja is “Napa Valley South”

Mexico has been producing wine since the 1500s, but now its vineyards are getting the recognition they deserve—here, we meet the winemakers putting the country’s vintages on the map

Ask Tomás Bracamontes what draws winemakers to Mexico and his answer is simple. “There are no rules here. Most people don’t think of the country as an international wine region, and yet you have people from all over Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, and the U.S. making fantastic Mexican wine.”

Bracamontes is founder of La Competencia, a California-based import company focused on the wines of Mexico—which range from vibrant reds from Bruma to innovative white blends, such as Casa Magoni’s Chardonnay-Vermentino. He believes it’s time to make room for the dizzying array of Mexican wines in our bars and cellars. And it’s a view shared by Michelin-starred restaurants such as Californios in San Francisco and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, as well as forward-thinking Mexican restaurants around the world.

A worker collects wine grapes during a harvest at Casa Madero vineyard in the Mexican state of Coahuila
Located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, the history of Casa Madero’s vineyards can be traced to 1597—making it the oldest winery in the Americas. Image: Alamy

“People expect Mexican beer and tequila, but when they start to see Mexico on a more elevated level, it blows their minds,” Bracamontes continues. “Everybody looks at the country as a new wine-producing area, but you’ll find that the first vineyards in the western hemisphere were in Mexico.”

A Taste of History

Originally planted by Spanish colonizers, Mexican vineyards were the first to produce wine on the American continent in the 1520s, and the oldest winery in North America—Casa Madero, founded in 1597—is still crushing grapes there today.

The early wines didn’t fall out of fashion due to poor quality or because cultivating, fermenting, and distilling agave is easier—they waned because Mexican wines were outlawed by the Spanish crown in 1699. They were so good that Spain’s domestic wine exports were plummeting. Restricted to producing only sacramental wine, the burgeoning Mexican industry slid off the global radar for centuries.

Today, it’s undergoing a revitalization spurred on by improved viticultural technology, tourism, and a resurgence of regional cuisines. Propelled by familiar grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Tempranillo, modern Mexican wine capitalizes on using familiar grape varieties with a south-of-the-border twist.

Portrait of Mexican wine makers Phil and Eileen Gregory against backdrop of mountains
Founders Phil and Eileen Gregory sample their produce at Vena Cava in Baja California, where the granite-rich landscape provides a unique terroir for wine. Image: Shot exclusively for Christie’s International Real Estate by Jennifer Siegwart

“The rise of Mexican wine has gone hand-in-hand with the appearance of more restaurants and exciting new chefs,” says Phil Gregory, the founder and winemaker of Vena Cava wines. “There’s a large number of cuisines, many going back hundreds of years, coupled with a vibrant new cuisine here.”

Gregory owns a restaurant and inn with his wife, Eileen, in addition to their winery, which is situated at the geographic epicenter of Mexico’s wine country in Baja California—a region often referred to as the Napa Valley of Mexico. A mere two-hour drive from San Diego and close to Los Angeles, Baja and its subzones—Valle de Guadalupe, and to a lesser extent Valle de Ojos Negros, Valle de Santo Tomás, and Valle de San Vicente—offer a combination of discovery and high-quality wine that sees visitors coming back.

Home to roughly 75 percent of Mexico’s wineries, Baja is characterized by granite-rich soils and a classically Mediterranean climate perfect for grapevines. Pacific breezes temper the otherwise hot climate, a combination that yields excellent wines from a range of varieties. “We make a lot of blends that you might not find elsewhere,” explains Gregory, who currently produces up to 35 wines in a given vintage. “People who come to Valle de Guadalupe come knowing they’ll find some unusual wines.”

Vena Cava winery was designed by architect Alejandro d’Acosta and built from reclaimed boats to form a cathedral-like ceiling, and the entire experience, featuring everything from classic reds to trendy orange and natural wines is unconventional yet sophisticated—and delicious.

An upside down boat and walls made from reclaimed wood create the winery at Vena Cava in Mexico
Vena Cava’s distinctive winery attracts attention for its unusual and original design by architect Alejandro d’Acosta, which was built from reclaimed fishing boats and other recycling materials.

The diversity of wines at Vena Cava and across Mexico is no accident: unlike Europe’s prime wine regions, the Mexican wine tradition exists without regulatory red tape. Mexican growers and vintners have no limits on their creativity or innovation, leading to the cultivation of more than 125 grape varieties in the country.

People expect Mexican beer and tequila, but when they see Mexico on a more elevated level it blows their minds—Tomás Bracamontes

Mexico’s seemingly endless opportunities for experimentation have even inspired the Lurton clan behind Bordeaux second-growth Château Cantenac Brown. “We officially began working in Mexico in 2015, but our story here is actually much older than that,” explains Nicolas Lurton. “My grandfather came to the country in the 1950s, and we as a family were looking to do something here for some time. What I love about Mexico is that we can try a lot of things.”

Bodegas Henri Lurton is today one of Valle de Guadalupe’s brightest lights, producing wines that are decidedly un-Bordelaise. With a fusion of French viticulture traditions and Mexican culture—Lurton’s founding winemaker here, Lourdes Martinez Ojeda, is an Ensenada local who trained at Cantenac Brown—the family’s wines are polished and precise.

A range of wine produced by Mexican Winery Bodegas Henri Lurton
Bodegas Henri Lurton's range of wines—including a Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and small-batch Carmenere—strike the perfect mix between French tradition, Mexican culture, and the surrounding terroir.

Vive La Différence

“Nebbiolo is probably one of the best-known grapes here because it is so different from the Nebbiolos of Italy,” says Lurton. “It has a very different color and very different aromas. This shows people how terroir is important and how everything around the vine affects the finished wines. It shows that a grape that is known in one place can be known in another area for something very different. I think it’s amazing.”

Near the city of Monterrey in the Valle de Parras, Diana Roca is betting big on Syrah. “It’s totally unknown to the world,” says Roca of the mountainous region where her Anclados winery is located. “We really can make world-class quality wines.”

The most ancient wine-producing zone in Mexico, Valle de Parras offers a continental contrast to Baja’s ocean-influenced wines. Here, high elevations provide the vines with respite from the sun, forming cool microclimates with the potential to yield premium wines.

“At our 5,500-foot (1,676 m) elevation, we have mild weather with warm days and cold nights, especially during the ripening season,” explains Anclados winemaker Lucia Garcia, who made wine in Spain and Germany before joining the vineyard. “This allows the ripening to happen more slowly, guaranteeing good concentration plus great color and aromas.”

A view over a lake and onto the vineyards and winery of Mexican Anclados wines
Anclados, the name of this small-production boutique winery in Parras, Mexico, means “hooked” or “anchored” in reference to its owners’ passion for creating “the best Mexican wine for the world.”

Limestone soils, similar to those found in preeminent winegrowing areas in France, also set the Valle de Parras apart. “While vine roots cannot actually penetrate through this rock,” explains Garcia, “there are preexisting crevices in the limestone, and the roots will search for water and other nutrients by channeling into these crevices and creating deep root systems.”

Focusing on its unique terroir, Roca believes her home valley could be the source of Mexico’s liquid future. The estate’s signature red is an elegant bottling centered on Syrah and accented with Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“In Valle de Parras and at Anclados, we want to make the premium wine of Mexico that can compete on the world stage,” she says.

Banner image: The Vena Cava range of wines. Image: Jennifer Siegwart