Mexican Wine History
Wine grapes were brought to Mexico in the 1500s with Hernan Cortez and the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The first winery in the Americas was founded in 1597 in what is now called the Parras Valley in the state of Coahuila, MX. I haven’t visited this part of Mexico, apparently it is like an oasis in the middle of nowhere (no disrespect) with fresh water springs and wild grapevines. The Jesuits started making wine from the native grapes first, later Spanish King Felipe II allowed for European vines to be planted in Mexico for wine and brandy production. The wine quality was very high, rivaling that of Spain so ... in 1699 the Spanish crown prohibited wine production in Mexico except a little bit for the church (does this sound familiar?). “Mission” varietal grapevines were brought to Baja in the 1701 at the Loreto Mission to make the sacramental wine. In 1857, the Mexican government seized all land holdings of the Catholic Church. Some vineyards, like those in Santo Tomas were sold to private entities, but many of the vineyards were simply abandoned.
My understanding is that Spain wanted a monopoly on olive oil too - In 1774 King Charles III forbade the cultivation of the olive tree in Mexico. Later on in 1777 he ordered the destruction of all the olive orchards. Now they grow olives in Baja producing delicious bright and grassy oil and I had cured olives that were really good too.
Wine in Baja
In the late 19th century Russian refugees emigrated to Baja California and brought European grapevines with them. Life was made difficult by phylloxera and the Mexican revolution, both of which served to bring about a culture of Mexican beer and Coca-cola drinking. The original plantings were owned rooted of course and some of those still exist in Valle de Guadalupe and the other valleys near Ensenada called Ojos Negros, Valle de San Vicente, Valle de Santo Tomas etc. I didn't have a chance to visit these other valleys - quien sabe, maybe next trip... It is not obvious how the Russian immigrants chose the varietals they originally brought with them (¿por qué Chenin blanc?) and now since Mexican grapegrowers are able to source plant material from grapevine nurseries around the world - they grow everything. Like literally everything. Sauv blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot (with a sounded “t” at the end), Cab, Franc, Grenache (which they call grenache not garnacha because garnacha sounds too "naco"), Syrah, Sangiovese, Aglianico, Fiano, Viognier, Carignan, Chenin blanc, Pinot noir, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Mission ... the list goes on.
The Nebbiolo is quite controversial as it is in fact not Nebbiolo at all, it is super pigmented, rustically tannic and kinda nothing like what we would call Nebbiolo ... sounds like there was a mixup at the nursery a long time ago and a different varietal was mislabeled and shipped to MX and subsequently propagated? Research is currently ongoing in this regard...
Saline water table
The valle de Guadalupe was once submerged as an ancient ocean floor and my limited understanding is that with plate tectonics and the formation of the Baja Peninsula a salt layer was deposited in the soil structure. Rainfall is very limited here and fresh water is a real commodity. Well water can be saline depending on where in the valley the well is drilled and to what depth. The salt water is more dense than the fresh water so it’s a terrible cycle in drought years if the level of the water table drops and the farms pump the saltier deeper well water to irrigate their vineyards. Most of the vines are grafted on rootstocks to protect both from phylloxera and salt toxicity. I heard several winemakers talk about the ppm of sodium in their wines. It seems like the best wines are made from vineyards irrigated with water with the lowest total dissolved solids by capturing rain water directly and irrigating with that as opposed to well water from the aquifer.
Geology of northern Baja excerpted from wikipedia
The terrain of the Valle is wild looking with gigantic granite outcroppings and boulders. The soils are decomposed granitic sand. Technically, the granite is batholithic rock (from Greek bathos, depth + lithos, rock), a large mass of intrusive igneous rock (also called plutonic rock from Pluto Roman god of the underworld) formed from cooled magma deep in the Earth's crust. Through erosion accelerated by continental uplift, batholiths emerge at the surface and are subjected to huge pressure differences between their former location deep in the earth and their new exposed location at or near the surface. As a result, their crystal structure expands slightly over time, exfoliating and weathering resulting in fairly clean and rounded rock faces. A well-known result of this process is Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. These rocks make sense to me now, reading wikipedia, but when I was there walking these vineyards, it looked wholly dissimilar to any other wine region I’ve been to (and like I’ve been to a lot). The wikipedia page on batholithic rocks also links to “The Baths” (short for batholiths, now I get it) on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands which look exactly like this.
Keep you posted for the specifics on the wines we tasted, where you can buy them stateside and more details on how to visit if you go. ¡Vamos!