Although most think of Mexico as the land of tequila, Mexico’s wine industry is actually the oldest in the New World. It got its start in 1521, one year after the Spanish invasion, when conquistadors started planting vines. Then, in 1524, Hernán Cortés, the governor of New Spain (Mexico), decreed that each Spanish settler who had been given land had to plant ten grapevines a year for every Indian worker (forced laborer) on his estate for the next five years. In 1597, Casa Madero, the oldest winery in the Americas, was founded in Parras Valley—it is still in operation today.
The success of the Mexican wine industry caused imports of Spanish wine to dwindle. As a result, to protect the Spanish wine industry, in 1699 King Carlos II banned the production of wine in Mexico, except for use by the church. This ban, which thwarted the development of a wine drinking tradition in Mexico, remained in effect until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The first large-scale commercial winery, the Bodegas de Santo Tomas, was not established until 1888.
During the 20th century, winemaking gradually increased, but the removal of trade barriers in the late 1980s opened the market to inexpensive imports from places including the US, Chile and Argentina, causing a decline in Mexican wine production. In the face of this competition and government taxes of around 40% levied on each bottle, the industry recognized it needed to compete on quality, not price. This spurred a boom in boutique winemaking and increased use of more advanced winemaking techniques. Today, the industry continues to grow, with production increasing almost 40% between 2006 and 2011, and quality continues to improve. According to the Mexico Sales Alliance, only 35% of wine consumed in Mexico is produced domestically.
Mexico has three wine regions encompassing seven states: North (Baja California and Sonora), La Laguna (Coahuila and Durango), and Center (Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Querétaro). Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley produces 90% of Mexican wine and has been called “Mexico’s Napa Valley.” Its climate is similar to Napa’s and a wide variety of grapes are grown there, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Grenache, Tempranillo, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Chenin Blanc, Palomino and Sauvignon Blanc. The Laguna wine region is home to the mile-high Parras Valley, which is primarily focused on red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Tempranillo. Querétaro, in the Center region, has vineyards at about 6,500 feet and primarily produces sparkling wine.
Although the average Mexican is not a big wine drinker, wine consumption is on the rise. According to Mexico’s National Wine Council, consumption has doubled in the last ten years and it is expected to double again by 2015. This growth has been largely driven by young people starting to drink wine. There is still significant room for increased consumption as, according to the Mexico Sales Alliance, per capita wine consumption is only about 8 ½ ounces per person per year, with tourists consuming 40% of all wine. 60% of all wine consumed is red, 40% is white.