The first wine production country in the Americas, thanks to the Conquistadores, is finally fulfilling its initial promise
The Mexican wine industry is on a mission. It would like to remind the world that grapes, and wine, have been part of this nation’s culture for centuries, and that Mexican wine can be as good as the more celebrated products from its neighbours to the north and in the continent to the south.
It’s true that wild grape varieties grew in Mexico long before the arrival of the Spanish, and constituted a part of the diet of several indigenous groups. When the Conquistadores arrived, they attempted to make wine from these grapes. Unfortunately they were so unsuited to winemaking that they soon began importing European grape varieties to Mexico.
Indeed, wine production in Mexico is largely down to a heady mixture of the legendary Conquistador Hernan Cortez, conqueror of the Aztec empire, and the legions of Catholic missionaries who followed in his footsteps over the next 3 centuries. In 1524, Cortez signed a decree ordering that all Spaniards with encomiendas (a version of feudalism, where the ‘stronger’ people protected the ‘weakest’ in exchange for indentured service) should plant 1000 Spanish vines for every 100 indigenous people in their encomienda. A while later, missionaries planted vineyards alongside the various buildings – missions, convents and churches – that they built all over Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were the same missionaries who took wine production to California. In 1769, the Friar Juniper Serra founded the Misión de San Diego de Alcalá, the first of 9 missions he built from San Diego to San Francisco, thereby bringing wine production to what was to become part of the US. He is therefore known as ‘The father of Californian wine’.
Another interesting fact: the most ancient winery in the Americas is Casa Madero, in the North Mexican state of Coahuila. This was founded by Evaristo Madero, grandfather of Francisco Madero, important figure of the Mexican Revolution and the 33rd Mexican president.
That wine may have been an integral part of Mexico’s history is not so clear in the bars and restaurants of today’s Mexico; beer and tequila remain the country’s most consumed beverages, and tend to hog the cultural limelight. Despite this, attitudes are changing. The Mexican wine market is showing near-prodigious growth from a relatively small base: in the last 10 years, wine consumption has increased by more than 40% and it is expected to continue its upward trajectory. It is estimated that by 2020 consumption will have tripled, to 180 million litres annually, or around 2 litres a head, about the same per capita consumption as Brazil. Even at this level, consumption is paltry by international standards (the average French adult still puts away over 50 litres a year). In a country of 88.6 million adults, many of them under 35, wine has enormous potential over the next 20 years.
Some 90% of Mexican wine is consumed within Mexico, though domestic production constitutes only 33% of the market, with the remainder made up by imports from South America, Spain and other European countries. The growth of the market presents a great opportunity for both domestic wine and international imports, and for local wine producers to be more visible on the international stage. As wine was central to Mexico’s past, it would appear to be increasingly important to its future.
If you’d like to know more, keep an eye out for our inaugural Mexico Landscapes report, to be published in Q4 of 2016.