Don’t You Mean Tequila?

3 November 2012
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My trip to Cuernavaca and Acapulco last month shocked a variety of people for a variety of reasons. Most of my family was convinced I would be kidnapped, beheaded, or shot. My colleagues questioned the worthiness of Acapulco as a destination. And everybody thought I was crazy when I said I was excited to try Mexican wine.

Well, despite the best efforts of the drug cartels, I managed to escape unharmed. Acapulco was gorgeous, and by golly, there are some excellent Mexican wines. You read that right: Tasty Mexican Wines. It’s not all Jose Cuervo and Corona down there.

Mexico, in fact, boasts the continent’s oldest wine industry, dating back to the early 16th century and Hernán Cortés, who saw no reason to forgo wine in the New World. Mexican wines might be more well-known, but the country lacks a wine-drinking culture, and those that do drink wine tend to drink imports. Nevertheless, some wineries make some impressive stuff in this unexpected country. As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “Mexican taste and drinking habits have for long lagged behind the increasingly exciting achievements of Mexico’s modern vineyards and wineries, although this is slowly changing in the major cities and tourist areas.”

Most wineries cluster at the northern end of the Baja Peninsula, which produces 90% of Mexican wine. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “vines can thrive in the Mediterranean climate, not unlike Napa and Sonoma’s with its Pacific influence, wherever irrigation water can be found.” The highlands north of Mexico City have also proven to be fruitful territory, with hot days but cool nights.

I sampled a number of Mexican wines on my trip, and I have to say there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. I expected overheated fruit bombs, but everything I tasted exhibited focus and restraint.

2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard: A blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard, this wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos. Monte Xanic is cited by a number of my books as a notable winery, and I can see why.

2011 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Chardonnay: This winery, in the high-altitude Valle de Parras just north of Mexico City, is either the oldest or the second-oldest winery in the Americas, depending on whether you believe the Oxford Companion or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Both agree it makes high-quality wines, and this Chardonnay is no exception. It starts rich, with some butter and oak, but these flavors are leavened by tight acids and a bright finish. Well-balanced and delicious.

2008 Casa Madero “Casa Grande” Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine had a red, meaty, raisiny smell, along with something spicy like cinnamon. I was impressed by its focused dark fruit, which gave way to something herbal, some white-pepper spice and ample tannins. Surely tasty with a steak.

2010 Casa Madero Shiraz: Another winner from Casa Madero — fruity, earthy and spicy. As I drink it, I could picture the vineyards growing in a clay-rich soil. Powerful but restrained, as a good Shiraz should be.

I stopped in a wine shop in Acapulco and came away with bottles of Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Domecq Chardonnay/Viognier. We’ll see if they can follow in the rather formidable footsteps of the wines I tasted above.

Mezcal, Vegetarian And Non-Vegetarian

27 October 2012
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Although it’s started to have a following in the United States, mezcal has yet to invade the popular consciousness the way tequila has. Everyone knows tequila, whether they like it or not, and almost everyone who drinks has tried a margarita at least once in their lives. But what does mezcal taste like? And what’s the signature mezcal cocktail?

The answer to the second question is easy: There isn’t one. At least, not yet. And that’s because of the answer to the first question. Mezcal has a much smokier, less cocktail-friendly flavor than tequila, because the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days. (The piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted, and they come only from the blue agave plant.)

While staying in Acapulco recently, I had hoped to explore the world of mezcal more deeply. But as a single traveler staying at a property well outside of town, it felt uncomfortable and inconvenient to bar hop in the city itself. Fortunately, my hotel had an excellent mezcal for me to sample, an Amores Reposado made in Santiago Matatlán (in Oaxaca) from espadín agave. As with tequila, “reposado” indicates that the spirit was aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months.

Amores distills its mezcal reposado three times and ages it for eight months, instead of just two, and the extra care shows. It had a red, smokey aroma, and it felt strong but surprisingly smooth, with smokey notes tempered by something sweet. It tasted particularly good paired with orange wedges dipped in chili powder.

Unfortunately, I failed in my quest to sample mezcal pechuga, which is mezcal distilled with a variety of fruits as well as a breast of chicken suspended in the still (you can read more about the process here). I found a bottle of Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga in a liquor store in Acapulco, but it cost an eye-popping 1,950 pesos, which works out to about $150! Even for a mezcal distilled with a chicken breast, that seemed a little steep. I consoled myself with some bottles of wine from Baja instead.

Mezcal won’t appeal to everyone, but if you happen to like tequila, it’s definitely worth a try. Fans of scotch, which can also be a bit smokey, should also consider investigating mezcal. Your liquor store should carry at least a few examples. Go for a reposado or an añejo (aged one to three years in oak). A quick search of Binny’s website revealed 36 options priced anywhere from $18 to $230 per bottle. And hey, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to send to Odd Bacchus, Binny’s carries the Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga for a cool $200.

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