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Garajistas, Amigos y Amor en Mexico

Posted: Feb 18, 2008 3:37pm ET

Some countries still remain off the wine radar screen for most people, even though they may be making some awesome wines. One that comes to mind is Israel. What a place! Some winemakers there are making some heartfelt, soulful wines. I still dream about a trip I made there in September 2006 with my wine-collecting friend Josh Latner, and we were blown away by the quality of a number of reds and whites we tasted. It is only going to get better there.

I had the same feeling, and maybe even more, a few weeks ago in Cancun, Mexico, when I tasted a range of wines from Baja California. Like Israel, Mexico has a special place in my heart. I love the country, culture, history and its people. Some of my dearest and closet friends are from Mexico. I spent a lot of my childhood surfing and fishing there.

But aside from all the heartfelt feelings for the country, there is a lot going on right now in its tiny wine world. About four years ago, I went to the Valle de Guadalupe, the main vine-growing area, about an hour southeast of Tijuana. Back then, a handful of serious wines existed, including the white and red from Casa de Piedra and a reserve Nebbiolo from La Cetto. But that was about it.

Today, there are a dozen or so people making some serious wines. In fact, there’s a sort of garage movement. Many of these people, with the original creators of Casa de Piedra, are hanging together and making small batches of cool wines. At least that’s what wine merchant Umberto Falcón of Mexico’s Vinoteca tells me. I am going to try to get down there in the next few months.

Anyway, we were chilling out in a small, hipster restaurant that an old buddy of mine owns in Puerto Morelos, just outside of Cancun. It’s called John Gray’s Kitchen. If you are in the area, check out his restaurant there, or the other one in Playa del Carmen. John is a supertalented chef, sourcing the best ingredients in the area and making no-nonsense, flavor-driven cuisine. I often wondered if he would have a Michelin star by now had he not left his burners in New York for the environs of Cancun. But he’s a beach guy and loves Mexico.

John put together an impromptu dinner/tasting for me, a few friends, Humberto, and frequent blog commenter, Frenchman and sommelier Ludovic Anacleto. Ludovic and Humberto work together. In fact, Ludovic organized the wines. (Gracias, hermano!) It was a cool evening as you can see from the video.

And it wasn’t as easy as you think to organize. Elections were being held the night of the tasting, so, technically John couldn’t serve wine in his restaurant. Don’t ask me why, but those were the rules. However, John devised an ingenious way to beat the system: He closed his restaurant early, and we had John Gray’s Kitchen all to ourselves. It only added to the experience.

Below are some of the wines we tasted (drank). All were consumed non-blind. Most are not available in the United States, but if you get to Mexico, tienes que buscarlos. You have to look for them.

2007 Sinergi VT, Marella, Valle de Guadalupe, Sauvignon Blanc: Pretty white that reminds me of a top dry white Bordeaux with melon, citrus fruit and cream on the nose and palate. Full yet balanced and fresh. 90 points, non-blind. www.sinergi-vt.com

2005 Adobe Guadalupe, Gabriel, Valle de Guadalupe: I like the aromas of rose petal and cherries. Full-bodied yet balanced and very clean with vanilla and fruit on the finish. Lovely tannins. Racy. Better in a couple of years. From Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. 90 points, non-blind. www.adobeguadalupe.com

2005 Mariatinto, Mariatinto, Valle de Guadalupe & Valle de Santo Tomas & Valle de San Vicente: This is a little rustic, with strawberry jam and vanilla character. A little too much for me. Spread it on toast? Full and jammy. From Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Grenache. 86 points, non-blind. www.mariatinto.com

2005 Casa de Piedra & Wente, Contraste, Valle de Guadalupe & Livermore: This is a bi-national wine made with Mexican and American grapes. Sort of fun, but who cares? Attractive but sort of banal aromas of blackberries and toasted oak, hints of dark chocolate. Full and soft. I am not that excited. From Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 86 points, non-blind. www.vinoscasadepiedra.com

2005 Sinergi VT, Enzo B Side, Valle de Guadalupe-Llano Colorado: Wonderful aromas of blackberries and vanilla follow through to a full and thick, velvety wine that is still balanced. From Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah. Best after 2008. 90 points, non-blind.

2005 Sinergi VT, Icaro, Valle de Guadalupe-Llano Colorado: I have had other bottles of this from other vintages. This was slightly disappointing; it had ripe and rich fruit, but I couldn’t get my head around the rubbery undertones. Still, it was round and rich. From Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah. 84 points, non-blind.

2006 Viñedos Malagon, Malagon Reserva de Familia, Valle de Guadalupe: Wow. What a wine! This has soul, baby. It is very decadent and luscious with black fruits, game, and hints of vanilla. It’s full body with velvety tannins and a finish that lasts for minutes. Que rico! Don’t wait. Drink it. Grenache, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 92 points, non-blind.

2005 Vinícola Tres Valles, Kojaa, Valle de Guadalupe: This is a hell of wine. Reminds me of a Turley Syrah, but with a little more finesse. Lots of blackberry, asphalt and black pepper aromas and flavors. Full and velvety textured with fabulous, untcious fruit, ripe tannins and a long flavorful finish. Am I in love? 92 points, non-blind. From Petite Sirah. www.vinostresvalles.com

2004 Vinícola Torres Alegre y Familia, Cru Garage, 100 percent Grenache, Valle deGuadalupe: Not sure if this is a perfect bottle, because it came across a bit dull. Pleasing strawberry jam aromas and flavors. Full and velvety. 84 points, non-blind.

2004 Casa Madero, Casa Grande Parras Esate, Valle de Parras: This is rich and spicy, with jammy and peppery fruit character. Full and round. A little monolithic but impressive fruit. 89 points, non-blind. www.madero.com.mx

Miguel Lecuona
Austin, TX —  February 19, 2008 12:14pm ET
James -- muy interesante! Look at the diversity of varietal experimentation. How long have the growers been at it? Is it too early for those who are growing and blending to form any conclusions as to which varietals have a reasonable future? In general, what sort of growing conditions exist there, are they a proxy for anything in your experience in either new or old world regions? Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  February 19, 2008 12:17pm ET
It's great to hear that better and better wines are in the making in Mexico. I look forward to drinking them in the near future. How's availability in the states?
James Suckling
 —  February 19, 2008 12:37pm ET
Miguel. I think the top growers have been at it for less than a decade. But I first went to the area in the late 1980s. I am keen on Rhone varieties for there. Any thing but Cab and Merlot. The growing conditions are arid -- sort of California's central coast or even the South of Italy. I am excited.
James Suckling
 —  February 19, 2008 12:38pm ET
Bernard. You are going to have to go to Mexico! The best place to find these wines is in DF or Ensenada. Not much available in the US.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 19, 2008 1:29pm ET
I've had the LA Cetto wines -- the petite is OK and the nebbiolo as described -- very good. These newer labels look fascinating and I like the blends they are trying. Arizona is also making wines along these lines if your are interested
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  February 19, 2008 2:42pm ET
The biggest problem is that the Mexicans still have a horrid distribution system. Wines come out in the 100+ degree heat, bounce down the road, and sit on the shelves of stores where it's 85-90 degrees inside. So many of the wines I have tried to buy there are cooked, and you can't take it back to the store. It's like "DAH, what do you expect, it's 102 outside in the shade?" I have actually found some good dry whites to go with their seafood, but buy cheap knowing your taking your chances.
Jordan Horoschak
Houston, TX —  February 19, 2008 3:20pm ET
James, perhaps us Americans can join you on your next cigar smoking trip to Cuba, now that Castro has resigned as president (which may ultimately result in the U.S. relaxing its embargo). Did you talk him into it on your last trip?? And you've posted a THIRD Bordeaux video?! You're such a tease - the anticipation is killing me... on what date should we expect the March issue of Wine Spectator to hit store shelves (and our mailboxes)?
Glenn S Lucash
February 19, 2008 3:25pm ET
I remembered you mentioned John Grey in a previous blog and went there while staying at Paraiso de la Benita(highly recommended). Fabulous restaurant tucked into a residential area and wonderful guy with a great big smile all the time. We really enjoyed the food and the wine list was very acceptable and reasonably priced.
La Quinta, CA —  February 19, 2008 3:28pm ET
Is that an Eisch glass you were using? It looks like it. Dustin
Restaurante Don Emiliano
San Jose del Cabo —  February 19, 2008 6:18pm ET
James, the last wine you tasted at your dinner comes from Casa Madero: the oldest winery in the American Continent(1597)410 years old. Their Reserve Chardonnay won gold at the 2002 San Fransisco Wine Challenge and the winery has won over 60 gold and silver medals world wide (london, brusells, etc) Santo Tom¿winery in Baja was established in the mid 1800's and many of the wines you tried have fruit form 60 & 70 year old vineyards. Humberto Falcon is good friend of mine and I know he can provide a lot of information on the long history of Mexican Wine. Thank you very much for looking this way.Best Regards,Angel Salinas
Ramon Velez Gutierrez
Mexico City —  February 19, 2008 8:03pm ET
Thanks for your interest about mexican wines, I¿ve being drinking mexican wines for many years and can¿t agree more with your notes regarding the evolution. I¿m a little surprised with your Icaro¿s tasting notes since that rubber undertones never appear to me and I¿m a heavy consumer of that wine. Maybe you should try with another bottle,anyway welcome to mexican wine paradise.
Monticello Vineyards
Napa, California —  February 19, 2008 8:09pm ET
James, I'm again excited to hear your enthusiasm for this area. I've been down to Baja about 8-9 times over the last six months working with a new vineyard/winery project. About a month ago, COPIA in Napa held a great tasting of Mexican wines (food, music and art as well - it was a festive event!). There were probably about 25 wineries in attendance and it was great to visit with some of the winemakers that made the trip to Napa. There were many good wines that day, but I particularly enjoyed tasting the wines of Chateau Camou & Casa de Piedra. I'm heading back down to Valle de Guadalupe in about ten days to walk the vines and taste the wines.Cheers,Chris Corley
Chum Lee
Mendocino, CA —  February 19, 2008 9:54pm ET
Anybody heading down to the Guadalupe Valley to do some camping: Stop by the little organic winery/gift shop just past the entrance to L.A. Cetto. Ask them for directions to Don Frederico's place. Warning: You'll need 4x4 to traverse the road to the property. He will let you camp on his property for a couple bucks, you can walk from your campsite to the hot springs nearby. What an adventure.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  February 20, 2008 10:05am ET
dear Sandy, I believe it is time for you to check again the mexican distribution system. Today, we only ship from origin in temperature controled containers from all the countries we distribute. Once in MX, the containers , still in temperature controled are put in trailers and arrived at our central of distribution. Then, once received, the wines are stored in temperature and humidity control cellar until they are sell anywere in the republic. the shiping from the central to the shops or restaurant/hotels is done in 3.5tons truck, still temperature controled. If the restaurant or the hotel or shop dont have good storage conditions, this is not anymore the problem of the distribution chain. As international company, we respect such protocols like ISO or HACCP. It is maybe time that you discver Mexico again, things have change a lot in the last decade.if you want i will gladly send you photos of those trucks/containers/chambers.shipping problems are the same in mexico than in France or the US, just read the blog of James Laube about shiping conditions in certain states!saludos ludovic
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  February 20, 2008 10:06am ET
merci james! what a nice evening we had together with you, James, John, Humberto, Sandra and Scott!!we wait for you to produce the first mexican pinot noir!!!saludos hermano!ludovic
Michelle Thompson
Charlotte, NC —  February 20, 2008 10:35am ET
James, thanks for this article. I was in Playa last May and enjoyed some wines from Baja. I had just completed a wine course with the ISG and Mexico was not part of it. It does appear to be a new exciting place for wine. Cheers!
Leobardo Bellancetin
Mexico City —  February 20, 2008 11:21am ET
Amigos, You forgot to taste Passion Meritage 2004 !Valle de Ojos Negros, Baja C.Edel Schaub Moss, SommelierePresidente InterContinental M¿co
Mr Damian Zaninovich
Bakersfield,Ca —  February 20, 2008 1:00pm ET
Quien es mas macho, James Suckling or Robert Parker.
Juan Vazquez-abarca
Tijuana, Mexico —  February 20, 2008 8:26pm ET
Mr. Suckling which is the best Mexican wine you have tasted?And in regards to cabernet i would suggest drinking Leonora is a Cab-Merlot blend from vi¿as pijoan.
Juan Morales
Monterrey NL Mexico —  February 25, 2008 10:34am ET
James, i am so glad that finally some attention is paid outside Mexico. and I am impressed of the non-blind ratings you gave. Mexico finally turned the page in winemaking and there are so many new things to come. if something really important happens in the future, feel responsible and proud. thanks again amigo.
Juan Vazquez-abarca
Tijuana, Mexico —  February 25, 2008 10:25pm ET
Se¿or Morales, cuando tendremos Vinoteca en Tijuana?Saludos.
David Kegaries
Hollywood, California —  March 2, 2008 4:21pm ET
Anyone interested in visiting the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California (Mexico's premier wine region) should read "Wines of Baja California" by Dr. Ralph Amey. I have been to the Valle de Guadalupe several times to visit and taste wines with Dr. Amey, and there is definitely great progress being made in fine wine production. I especially like Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou, Mogor-Badan, LA Cetto, Vina de Liceaga and Baron Balche.
Francisco Madrid
March 14, 2008 8:53pm ET
It¿s great that at least you have decided to try mexican wine....Congratulations...Just two minor precisions: 1. Casa Madero has diferent varietals which one are you talking about?...I believe it's Shiraz but it could be Cabernet Sauvignon...2. On the other hand I strongly disagree with the rating that you give to Icaro I believe you have to give it a second chance Again congratulations
James Suckling
 —  March 16, 2008 10:57pm ET
Thanks Francisco. Yes. I had a bad bottle of the Icaro. I just tasted it again in Ensenada at the winery and it was outstanding.

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