Spirits Vino Mexico

"Mexico cannot export wines to this country. They retaliate by barring California wines. It is all very ridiculous."

On a recent journey to Mexico City we happily experienced the fruits of the developing Mexican wine industry, which, against the odds of nature, is experiencing a significant and remarkable improvement.

At the outset, I must tell you that Mexican wines are not available at this time in the United States, so you will have to sample them on your winter trip to Acapulco.

The difficulty the Mexican wine industry faces centers on the location of the grape growing areas. All of the world’s grape growing areas that are famous for the quality of their wines are located in the two temperate climate belts around the world. Mexico’s geographical location in the torrid zone prevents production of great wines.

Rainfall in Mexico is erratic; the coastal areas get too much, the central plateau is too arid and the rest of the country gets the rain at the wrong time in the vine growing cycle. Even on the high plateaus of the northern regions the difference between the low night temperatures and the extremely hot days inhibits the healthy growth of vines.

There is also a lack of sophistication in handling wine. Liquor stores and restaurants do not store or protect the delicate wines correctly.

If you want a standard of comparison, Mexican wines are similar to the mid-level high volume California wines such as Paul Masson or Almaden. I don’t like to compare this with that, but some sort of peg is needed. It is a shame that Mexico cannot export wines to this country. They retaliate by barring California wine. It is all very ridiculous.

Some of the best available wines I sampled while in Mexico included wines from the labels of Alamo in Sal-tillo, Casa Madero in Parras, San Marcos in Aguascalientes and Santo Tomas in Baja California. The two very best were the white Blanc de Blancs and the Red Clarete of the Hidalgo label from San Juan del Rio.

These are all worth tasting and the prices (about $2-$3) are right if you find them in good condition. French wines are four to six times more expensive than local ones in Mexico, and the percentage of spoiled bottles is just as high. Forget about imported wines in Mexico and experiment with the local ones.

Despite all the trials and tribulations, many of these oenologically well-educated professionals make some very good wines. But in the meantime they survive and thrive by distilling the bulk of their ordinary white wines into brandy.

Brandy used to be a very unimportant spirit in Mexico until the Second World War when the word “conac” on labels was outlawed by the government. The producers substituted the English word “brandy” with all its foreign snobbish connotations and the sales skyrocketed.

Pedro Domecq, whose brandy “Presidente” leads in sales in Mexico, said brandies are outselling rum and tequila as the basic ingredient for cocktails (they even mix it with Coke). Domecq is a member of the great Domecq family of Spain which produces superb Spanish sherry and brandy. He left Spain in the Fifties and came to Mexico where he established the huge and impressive Do-mecq Distilleries.

The “Presidente” label is the only Domecq brandy sold in the states right now. It is light and smooth and very well received in California and New York. The vehicle to promote it is a new cocktail called “Calafia” which is made in a blender and served frappé. Use one ounce of Presidente, a half ounce of Crema de Lima Cordial (or Triple Sec), the juice of half a lime and a handful of crushed ice. It is not a gimmicky cocktail invented from desperation by an advertising agency, but is fruity, dry and mellow on the tongue-and it carries quite a kick.

At Domecq’s brandy-aging establishment in Los Reyes we found everything hushed and beautiful among the Spanish-style bodegas (warehouses) in which 150,000 barrels of brandy are quietly and expensively resting and aging for a minimum of four years. This slow process of breathing oxygen through the wood, absorbing tannin and color from the oak and blending by the solera method, is what makes a brandy great.

Domecq buys grapes from all of the Mexican grape-growing provinces and ferments them into wine in seven wineries placed strategically close to the vineyards. After vinification and a period of aging, the wines are distilled into white, raw brandy called “aguar- diente,” and transported in stain-less-steel tank trucks to Los Reyes. It is then placed in huge tanks to mix and minimize the regional and climatic differences of their origins before placement in the barrels.

The barrels, by the way, are old bourbon barrels which Domecq buys from American bourbon-makers. The barrels are disassembled, marked and shipped to Los Reyes where they are cleaned and put back together again.

The first stage of aging brandy is called “cabeceos,” the second “criade-ras” and the final and third step, “soleras.” About every 14 to 16 months one-third of each barrel is moved into the next stage, with the soleras barrels yielding the finished brandy. The process is similar to the ancient method of blending sherries in Spain, the final aim being to produce the identical tasting brandy year after year. There are separate bodegas for each stage and again a different one for “Don Pedro” label, which is aged 10 years. The ultimate Domecq label is the “Azteca de Oro,” a solera started in a small bodega about 25 years ago, and only now being marketed in Mexico in small quantities. Alas, none is available this side of the Rio Grande.

The main reason for our Mexican trip was an unexpected invitation to speak on wines at the monthly meeting of the Mexico City chapter of the Young Presidents Organization, a group of young Mexican business executives. Ed Kennedy, the program chairman, called me and issued the invitation. My only reaction was “When, Ed? Tomorrow?”

The dinner and an exposition of the YPO members’ products took place in the elegant University Club. It was well worth it, since everybody was in a great mood before dinner. Aperitifs may have helped; the Santo Tomas sherry was surprisingly good. Dinner was beautifully served with a fish course of red snapper filet and an entree of English cut roast beef. The Hidalgo Blanc de Blancs was the best wine of the evening. It had the clean freshness most Mexican wines (usually low on acidity) do not have. The Beaujolais was disappointing-all the transportation through a dozen climates had robbed it of the delightful fruit and youth that is so appealing and expected from this wine. And the price is out of sight-$9 in retail stores. The Santo Tomas Sauternes was a disaster, but the Domecq Azteca de Oro was absolutely wonderful. One shouldn’t even try to compare it to cognacs. It has its own style and character and was the superb finale to the wonderful, but exhausting evening.

My talk to the YPOs was interesting to me, in that they were sharp, on the ball and fortunately showed great tolerance and a keen sense of humor. Talking afterwards with Ed Kennedy and Richard Hojel, the hosts, we all agreed that five years ago the lack of interest in wines would have made this evening unthinkable. Today, wines belong on the everyday scene.

Being an habitual late morning starter, I am a great admirer of Mexican meal hours. Most of the restaurants do not even open for lunch until 1 p.m. and are still going strong at 4 p.m.

Happiness is a Margarita at 2 p.m. and broiled crayfish (that’s crawfish, you all) at 3 p.m. on the patio of Bell-inghausen, our favorite Mexico City restaurant. When you enter, walk straight through to the small door (always jammed with patrons and waiters) leading to the outdoor patio. Look for Julio, the unflappable, un-bribable dictator of the patio.

The food is excellent, rather simple, and not Frenchified at all. The accent is heavy on fresh seafood. With your Margaritas you will be served a plate of Bellinghausen’s famous hot, crisply-fried tiny whitefish. They are eaten whole and go well with the limey Margarita.

On our recent visit, Lynn had thick, luscious cream of avocado soup and Langostinos Bellinghausen – broiled large prawns served without shells in a buttery sauce with mild pimentos. My mixed seafood appetizer came with a piquant, but not too hot sauce, flavored with fresh cilentro, and the Langostinos were broiled and served in shells with garlic and lemon butter and lots of crisp, crunchy bits of mild garlic. The wine was Chauvenet Blanco, a pleasant, dry wine.

The devastating surprise of this trip was the new 15 per cent sales tax in the so-called First Class establishments. One of the Mexican government’s many anti-import tariffs and restrictions, the new tax actually applies to all guests in the restaurants,nightclubs and bars serving importedfood or (regardless of whetheryou partake). It has been in forcesince last November and is alreadyhaving a punishing effect on the tourist-oriented industries. On the otherhand, the sales tax in the restaurantsnot serving imports is still four percent. But consider the extreme case ofroom service checks in major hotels:15 per cent added for sales tax, another 15 per cent for the service chargeand the waiter or bellman is still waiting with an outstretched palm. Thirtypercent!?!

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