Photography by Marcus Nilsson

The great Mexican wine test

Mexico is not a wine-loving country. The average citizen drinks just two glasses per year, content to quaff beer and tequila instead—beverages that the Mexican government heavily subsidizes. Still, against all odds, Mexico’s rapidly expanding middle class is warming to homegrown grapes, and the majority of fine dining establishments in the capital now boast at least one Mexican bottle. For all the country’s viticultural progress over the last three decades, however, the big (if slightly premature) question remains: Is Mexican wine any good? To find out, we gathered three New York-based drinks professionals—Carla Rzeszewski (wine director at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, the Spotted Pig and the John Dory Oyster Bar), Matt Stinton (service director and bar manager at Hearth Restaurant), and Alex Alan (sommelier at  Casa Mono and wine director at Hotel Delmano)—one Sunday night in February. In the third-floor clubhouse of New York City’s Spotted Pig, they swilled and spat their way through nine wines from the Baja peninsula, home to 90 percent of the country’s vineyards. Does Mexican wine deserve a spot on the global stage? Or should we hold our applause? Here’s our best guess.

Chasselas del Mogor 2009


CR: Who’s making these wines? Is it a hobby? Families with money? [Sips.] There’s a little sulfur on the nose, which takes over any fruit that might be there.
MS: Are there different microclimates in Baja? Because it seems like the ripeness levels are going to be high. There’s nothing moving the wine along, no acidity. But I find the nose—unlike you do, Carla—really intriguing.
AA: I’m almost thinking more California climates and styles, even though the grapes are probably straight from Europe. It’s like Sonoma 40 years ago. They’re throwing it all in and saying, “Game on. Fuck it.”

Ulloa Consecha 2010
Savignon Blanc and Moscato de Canelli

AA: This one is less interesting, but it’s also more technically right. It’s just neutral—they’re stirring the pot, saying, “Add this and that, frogs legs, hair of a cat…” Says here Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat, but it doesn’t taste like either of those grapes.
MS: When Alex brings up California in the ’60s, I mean, those guys were following the blueprint of France, like everyone else. So by pairing Muscat with Sauvignon, the Mexicans are really not following the blueprint, and it would be really courageous if they were able to pull it off.

Paoloni Villa Montefiori 2007

MS: I’m actually kind of impressed. There’s a clovey note, a good tannin structure. I would refer to the vintage, but I’ll use the term sparingly. Oh, ’07 in Baja? Delicious! But I ask the age because I definitely think it could use some more time to mellow out.
AA: It tastes better than California Montepulciano. I think the beauty of it is that people would drink the crap out of this wine. I’d put it right alongside your Patron and Corona.
CR: There’s a little heat on the wine. The alcohol pops up and makes the fruit kind of confectionary—sort of like fruit leather, as opposed to the bitter cherry that you’re going to get in Italy. But will they market it as an Italian varietal with a Mexican point of view, or are they trying to make something similar to Italian Montepulciano? Again, it goes back to the question: Why are these the grapes you chose?

Mogor Badan 2008
Cabernet Savignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot

MS: You’re met with fruit and then the tannins just…it’s like a bad new girlfriend. You introduce her to your friends and they’re like, “Hey, how’s it going?” and she’s like, “Hi, I’m Sarah!” And suddenly Sarah is taking over everyone’s conversations. The wine takes charge and it never lets go. The fruit never gets back in there, and you’ve got this herbal quality that kind of comes at the back end of it. Now it’s all about Sarah and less about, I don’t know, your friend’s dad retiring.
AA: I have to say, I’m not as offended by Sarah. She might be loud, but she’s not obnoxious. She didn’t try to cut in while you were having a conversation with your buddy, but she’s definitely constantly talking in the background. I think you’re getting at the immaturity of the region, but this wine’s relatively adult.

Vino de Piedra 2007
Tempranillo and Cabernet Savignon.

CR: It’s like salt water taffy, how sometimes when you eat it you feel like you’ve got ChapStick on your tongue. It’s waxy, not a clean texture. This isn’t salinity—this is saltiness. It’s umami, it’s MSG. However, on the nose, this has the most beautiful aromatic so far, the most delicate and the most honest. It’s an international-style wine—it has taken out all specificity, so you’re not going to offend anybody. It’s the fucking rom-com of Mexican wines.
MS: It’s a well-made wine in a stand-alone style—meaning, you don’t necessarily need food with this wine.
AA: Whatever it is, the soil type probably has a lot to do with it. I think the fact that there’s a commonality between these wines is probably the most impressive thing about them. That’s what we in the business would call terroir.

Ulloa 2008 Red
Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Petite Sirah.

CR: I think the oiliness is more under control here than it has been on the other wines. The fruit here is gorgeous. I’m not a big fruit girl in terms of how lush I like my reds, but I think it’s well done. That saltiness, instead of being brushed onto my palate like all the other wines, is right under the fruit, which I appreciate.

Mariatinto 2010
Tempranillo, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Carignane

AA: [Picks up bottle and examines label, which features a drawing of an alluring feline.] This is my new wine business: Sexy Successful Cats Imports. Again, someone knew what they were doing when they made this, but they overthought it. It’s a fucking red wine! Stop trying to do all this shit to it.
C: It’s like JonBenét Ramsey. They JonBenét-ed it. They took this innocent thing and dressed it up and put a lot of makeup on it. This one is a blend of—get this—Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Carignan. You got everything up in there.

Pedregal 2006
Syrah and Mourvedre

CR: You can see these wines going up the line, becoming more and more polished and more and more correct. The sweet-salty thing is still there, but the fruit is there first. [In a singsongy voice] Inter-nat-ional!
AA: I always hear the international style is all wood and fruit and smooth. Well, that’s what you do when you’re trying to make money. It’s a young wine region. Maybe someday.