Sipping Mexican Wines with a Bowl of Birria (#WinePW)

Wine came to Mexico before anywhere else in the Americas, and yet their industry is really just starting. It's up and coming quickly, though. We're exploring two bottles that represent very different sides of their business and sipping them alongside a delicious serving of birria. 


This post contains wines that were provided as samples. No other compensation was received for this post and all opinions are my own. It also contains affiliate links from which I might gain a commission at no cost to you.

The first time I recall ever encountering Mexican wines was on an excursion to Ensenda wine country while on a cruise to Baja Greg and I went on in our early 20s. It was one of the better memories I have of that particular cruise, but to be honest, it had less to do with the wine and more to do with the fact that a day in wine country is almost always lovely. This was way before I knew anything about wine, but of the three or four wineries the excursion took us to, only one (L.A. Cetto) stood out as being any good. Of course, this could have been due to the particular selection of wineries. I mentally cataloged the topic of Mexican wines as “interesting, but still needs work.” 

Flash forward more years than I’d like to admit. I’ve now seen more and more quality Mexican wines cross my path. One or two would make it onto the shelves while I was working in a wine shop. A friend would pour one for me at a tasting. I’d see a few more examples represented at trade tastings. Then one of my tasting groups (in the before times) dedicated a session to Mexican wines during which I was able to taste a full line-up that included a wide range of grapes and styles and got a sense of where their wine industry had progressed to, and it seemed like they’d come a long way. Of course, this is still a region in development, but one that’s definitely worth paying attention to. 


A Brief History of Wine in Mexico

Map borrowed from WineFolly.com


The funny thing is that while Mexico’s wine industry is still emerging and developing, it was actually the first place wine was made in the Americas. The Spanish conquistadors first brought over vitis vinifera vines in the 16th century – the species of grapes most commonly used to make wine is not indigenous to the Americas and required a lift getting over the ocean. The vines were planted, however, the breaks were pushed on the growth of the new industry when Spain realized it had a good thing going as the main supplier of wines to “New Spain.”  The trading was so profitable for Spain that King Carlos II went so far as to outlaw the commercial production of wine in 1699 so that the new would have to keep on importing it. Most wine grapes that had been planted were used to make brandy.

Wine production continued – albeit at a trickle – thanks to the Catholic Church, as it was legal for them to continue to make it for ceremonial purposes. Therefore, while the industry hung on by a thread, it did hold on. Things essentially remained this way until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in the 19th Century. 

The very first vineyards in Mexico were planted around the town of Parras de la Fuente which translates as 'vineyards of the spring. ' This region is located in north-central Mexico in Coahuila. Since Mexico’s climate overall is very hot – much hotter than is normal for a grape-growing region – it’s necessary to find microclimates that offset the heat. The vineyards in Parras de la Fuente are located in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, at an altitude of around 5,000 feet (almost 1,525 meters), making it much cooler than the coastal regions. It also helps that it’s pretty arid – grapes definitely prefer a “dry heat.”

The wine industry was not destined to stay centered in the Parras Valley. The first grapes were planted in Baja  Today, the overwhelming majority of Mexican wine (85 to 90%) is made in Baja California. Baja benefits from being a little farther north and closer to the ocean, so cooling ocean breezes provide relief from the heat. It has a Mediterranean climate, but it’s fairly dry here as well, so the majority of vineyards do require irrigation. Overall, the region tends to have granitic alluvial soils similar to what you might find in France’s Northern Rhône Valley.  Ensenada is the center of the industry, but the region has developed to the point that there are major sub-regions including Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Calafia, Valle de San Vincente, and Valle de Santo Tomás. 

As Mexico’s modern wine industry is still in development, it’s still pretty much the wild, wild west. There are no signature grapes as of yet – over 120 different varieties are grown. There also isn’t much in the way of regulation; the wineries basically have to self-regulate. The lack of rules also means that there is a lot of experimentation. You’ll find a lot of blends here, many of which might seem unusual and you won’t see in other places. Winemakers feel free to put things together to see if they taste good. The infrastructure is still building, but things are growing quickly. In 2006 (around the time we went to Ensenda, give or take a couple of years), there were less than 25 wineries in the whole country. Now, there are over 120 in Baja alone. There are a few big producers (like L.A. Cetto, which I mentioned earlier), but the majority of wineries are pretty small. 


The Food

Birria has been all the rage in recent years. While I don’t necessarily mean to feed the hype for the sake of it, I do really love the stuff. It’s got sooooooo much flavor and it’s 100% comfort food at the same time. It’s a very traditional dish that originally came from the state of Jalisco that involves stewing meat in a very flavorful broth flavored with chili peppers and lots of herbs and spices. Goat is the meat most traditionally associated with birria, but lamb and beef are also commonly used. There are even plenty of vegetarian versions out there. The meat and the resulting stew, or consomé, can then be served in different ways. The two can be served together with a side of tortillas, or the meat can be used to fill tacos or tortas, probably with a side of the consomé for dipping on the side. 


We fell in love with the quesabirria (basically a birria quesadilla) at Nido Backyard, a restaurant here in Oakland, and we can’t help but get it pretty much every time we go. On our last trip to San Diego, some friends introduced us to Tuetano Taqueria, which serves it up a slew of different delicious ways. 



Birria quesadilla with beans

Birria Torta
 Birria taco with a side of bone marrow.

At some point last year, I decided to try making Birria de Res (beef) at home. I worked with a few different recipes I found online, but predominantly crossed this recipe from the NYT Cooking and this one from GimmeSomeOven.com to help me adjust things for prep in my Instant Pot. (I believe I used a combination of chuck roast and oxtail for the meat.) It turned out deliciously and yielded lots of leftovers, so I was able to store quite a bit in the freezer and doled out the goodness over a few months. 

In the process, I was also able to play around with serving it in different ways. In addition to eating it as a stew and in tacos etc., one day I brought home a bunch of tamales from a vendor at my local farmer’s market. I ended up marrying the two together, and now this might be my absolute favorite way to eat a tamale. 


Having lots of leftovers also gave me the chance to try the dish with different wines, and on two occasions, we paired the birria with Mexican wines. It was an easy match for both bottles, although each worked well in different ways. 


The Wines: Two Very Different Representatives

The two wines we’ll be looking at today represent different facets and extremes of what you might find. The first is from the Parras Valley from a historical winery and is made in the international style. The second is a natural wine from a young winery in Baja.


Casa Madero 3V Red Blend Parras Valley, Coahuila 2018 


Blend: Equal Parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo |  ABV: 13.7% |  Average Price: $27 (Sample) | Find additional details here and here.

Casa Madero is the oldest winery in the Americas. Its history goes back to 1597 when King Felipe II of Spain awarded Don Lorenzo Garcia a land grant, along with the right to produce wine and brandy for the crown. The winery was born under the name Hacienda de San Lorenzo. It would then go on to change hands several times and was eventually purchased by Evaristo Madero in 1893, giving the winery its current name. 

It’s located in the Parras Valley in the Sierra Madre Mountains (as discussed above), and thanks to the high elevation of the vineyards at 5000 feet, the grapes enjoy warm days and cool nights. The winey has continued modernizing and moving forward. It was also the first Mexican winery to have organically certified vineyards and now has several certified sites. 


Tasting Notes: Warm, ripe fruit notes strawberry fruit leather, blackberry, black cherry, and red plum sauce. Dusty earth notes are mixed in, along with white pepper, pencil lead, hints of cocoa, and tobacco. The palate mixes Old World earthiness with the ripe fruit of the new world. The wine was medium+ to full-bodied with smooth but grippy tannins. I decanted this wine in advance. 

Pairing: It was excellent with birria tacos. The depth of the wine matched the depth of flavors in the food beautifully, and it became silkier alongside the food as the meatiness helped to further smooth out the tannins.

This wine was sent to me as part of a collaboration with Big Hammer Wines. They offer fine wines at discounted prices. While this particular bottle is sold out, you can find the 2019 bottling here. You can also find a curated list of my selections here. Use the discount code NICOLE15 for $15 off any purchase. (Limit to 1 use per customer.)



Bichi No Sapiens Baja California 2019


Blend: Unknown. Possibly Dolcetto, possibly Carrignan. | Average Price: $34 | Find additional details here.

Established in 2014, Bichi is at the much younger end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, they’ve made a splash in a very short period of time. This is a winery that gets natural wine fans very excited. Located in Tecate, the winery was started by Noel Téllez and his brother, chef Jair Téllez, who moved to Baja from neighboring Sonora. Noel, who left his job as a lawyer to work on the winery, is now the sole proprietor. The name Bichi means “naked” in the Sonoran Yaqui dialect and it reflects a hands-off approach to their winemaking. It’s also captured in the (literally) cheeky labels picturing luchadores and luchadoras wearing nothing but their birthday suits.



Bichi farms 10 hectares of their own Tecate vineyards biodynamically and they collaborate with organic farmers in Tecate and around San Antonio de las Minas in the Valle de Guadalupe. They seek out interesting vineyards to source from. In the case of the No Sapiens, the dry-farmed, own-rooted source vineyard is planted with a mysterious grape variety that remains unidentified. The farmer thinks it could possibly be Dolcetto from plantings brought over from Italy in the 1940s, while the Téllez family thinks it could be Carignan from Spain. In the winery, grapes are destemmed by hand and gently foot stomped, and fermentations are carried out by wild yeast. 

I first came in contact with Bichi’s wines several years ago, and I think the No Sapiens was the first one I tried. The first versions I tasted were at the "natty AF" end of the natural wines – too funky for my personal tastes. On top of that, I remember the necks of the bottles being clogged up with sediment. I don’t mind some sediment, but this was a bit much. I didn’t get the hype. But things have come a long way in just a few vintages,  as more recent tastings were much, much nicer. The wines were still a bit funky, but pleasantly so, and those elements blended in with the pretty fruit notes. 

Tasting Notes: Fruity and funky. Black cherries, pepper, licorice, flowers petals, and dusty barnyard notes on the nose. On the palate, it was bright, juicy, and generous up front, moving into more gamey notes towards the finish. There was a bit of brett, but it was integrated with the other flavors. The wine was medium to medium + in body, with fine tannins, and lots of freshness. I recommend decanting.

Pairing: This was another great pairing for the birria, although this wine brought out the gamier side of the stew. The wine’s gamey side blended into the food and became less pronounced in the combination. A delicious combo!

*****

Other Possibilities 

If you're looking for additional pairing suggestions to go with birria and can't your hands on a bottle of Mexican wine, have no fear. The bold, meaty flavors in birria should work happily with quite a few red wines, but since there is a mixture of spice and earthiness, look for a red that combines elements of rich, ripe fruit to balance the spice, and elements of earthiness or a meaty quality to further tie in with the flavors.

We also tried this Seven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2015  from Washington state, which also worked well thanks to this combination of flavors. I tend to find that Washington wines generally have a good balance of fruit and earthy elements.


*****

More Mexican Wines

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that one of my tasting groups dedicated a session to Mexican wines. I thought I'd drop the basic tasting notes I took at that session here to show some fo the range of wines. Starred wines were favorites. 


Blend: 80% Chardonnay, 20% Vermentino
Stainless steel, a little bit of neutral oak at the finish just to round it out .
Nose: Creamy nose, with a light herbal note.
Palate: Crispy apples and lemon lime, rounded out by herbal notes on the finish. 

Nose: Creamed apples and peaches, light tangerine, and touches of honeysuckle 
Palate: Similar notes continue on the palate, along with a little hay, a bit of dusty earth, nice freshness. 

Blend: 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah 
Nose: Dusty smoke, singed cedar, and a dusting of cocoa.
Palate: Mixed Berries and cherries, ripe but bright (more acid than expected), a bit of dust, strawberry leather. 


12 month in oak, 30% new French
Nose: A little vanilla, cherry, strawberry candy, baking spice.
Palate: Definitely more oak here,baking spices, dusty strawberry, cherry, raspberry, vanilla
Would like to see it in about 3-5 years.


30% new oak
Nose: Orange spice, cherry and red plum.
Palate: These continue on the palate along with red currant, light spice, and deep berries, black tea.

Nose: A touch of a high-toned floral note, sweet spice, black cherry, red currant, red berries, sweet tobacco, cold stones
Palate: These notes continued on the palate along with black tea. The oaks still needs time to integrate. 
 

Bodegas Henri Lurton Le Nebbiolo Valle de Guadalupe2015

Nose: Dusty red raspberries, blackberries, cedar, sour cherry, tar, char.
Palate.  Inky and tarry, with lots ripe fruits and tooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnsssssss on tannins
Needs more time for the tannins to calm down a bit. Decant.

 


*****

The Wine Pairing Weekend (#WinePW) Blogging Group is exploring the wines of Mexico. Check out the rest of their posts:


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10 comments

  1. I live under a rock....I have never heard of birria but now I am on a mission to make some. Thanks.

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  2. I've never heard of birria either! I must be living under the same rock as Wendy. Sounds hearty and delicious. I can imagine this birria with the wines you described. Not sure I'd like the funk on the Bichi, but appreciate the innovative approach!

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    1. I do hope you get the chance to try it! Very tasty indeed.

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  3. What a beautiful read. You take this information on Mexico and its wines and make it fun to read and understandable. I'll be looking for these labels!

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  4. Wow Nicole what a great read your post was so informative on many fronts. Thank you. I didn't know about either of those wineries, that dish you mentioned nor the history of that first planted valley. Thanks for sharing. Definitely try tango, it's enchanting.

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  5. You really sunk you teeth into Mexican wine Nicole. What a great post. Now about that Birria. OMG! I've never had it. That will change soon! The quesabirria at Nido Back Yard sounds great, but I don't recall seeing it our last visit there. Anyhow, it's Birria for me in 2022!

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    1. Thanks Martin. And the birria is definitely still on the menu and I highly recommend -- we get at least one every time we go. :-)

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