Local winemakers are reviving history in central Mexico's high desert

"We are rebirthing a region," says Paco Lara Sirvent
of Cuna de Tierra winery in Dolores Hidalgo

Four miles from the art galleries and boutique hotels that line the cobblestone streets in San Miguel de Allende, cactus-studded country roads lead to the vineyards at Dos Buhos, an organic winery where art and agriculture intersect inside a barn transformed into a rustic tasting room.

Woden foundry molds from old train cars decorate stone walls hung with paintings by local artists. Classical guitar music plays in the background as winemaker Diane Maycotte lays out a spread of plum marmalade, home-grown olives and local cheeses. She pours glasses of what she calls her "Not-shy rosé," a dry, Provençal -style  wine with enough "punch'' to stand up to spicy Mexican food. Later comes a fruity Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo blend, and finally a sweet Moscato paired with carmel and salt macaroons made by a new French bakery. 

Diane Maycotte at Dos Buhos near San Miguel de Allende

 "We are really reviving history," says Texas native Maycotte,  of her decision to plant grape vines ten years ago on a ranch that has been in her husband's family for 50 years. She's not alone. Estimates are there are 20-plus vineyards in the state of Guanajuato, a high-desert area in central Mexico, where just as in neighboring Querétaro, the Spanish conquistadors imported vines from Europe, and introduced wine-making in the 16th century, technically  making Mexico the oldest wine producer in North America. I report on the latest trends in the November issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine

"You don't think of Mexico as a wine destination," observes Adamarie King, owner of Connoisseurs Travel, an agency specializing in travel to Mexico and Italy. "But it's becoming more of one, certainly as the food scene explodes in Mexico. While nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in Mexico comes from the Baja region, "the climate (and altitude) around Guanajuato and Queretaro tends to be very user-friendly for growing grapes."

High government taxes hinder exports, the reason why most of the wine coming from this region - mainly young, low-alcohol red blends and a few whites - is available only locally. Family-owned wineries such as Dos Búhos and others lure visitors into the countryside for tours and tastings, gourmet picnics, private candlelight dinners in underground barrel rooms and lots of innovation.

"It's all so new here, we're not bund by a lot of the laws you have in Europe and the U.S.," says Maycotte, taking a sniff of port aging in her barrel room. "You'd be crazy if you weren't experimenting."

Visit Vincola Toyan and stay for lunch 

Around the corner from Dos Búhos, Mexican women hover over clay pots, dishing out tacos filled with organic wild greens, zucchini and mushrooms. The makeshift lunch counter adjoins Vinícola Toyan, an organic farm and winery where all 35 workers are women. Like Maycotte, owner and winemaker Martha Molina García began growing grapes - six varieties in all - ten years ago.  She released her first 2009 vintage in 2012, and currently offers a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet/Merlot blend in bottles decorated with handmade pressed aluminum labels. 

Martha Molina Garcia in the vineyard at Vinicola Toyan

The highlight of a visit here is a tour or a private tasting inside a cellar dug 45 feet underground. A meterorite sits at the entrance, which Garcia believes provides "calming'' energy for the wines. Watching over the barrels and bottles are 24 stone statues of monks tucked into niches glowing with blue lights.Tastings take place at a long table inside a working winery crammed with bags of corks piled on top of each other. "Wine is magic,'' says Garcia as she pours from a bottle of Lux de Lux, a sauvignon blanc decorated with a label of pressed aluminum.

Statues of monks watch over the
 wine in the cellars at Vinicola  Toyan

Twenty-five miles from San Miguel, in the colonial city of Dolores Hidalgo, Juan Manchón, winemaker at Cuna de Tierra, revived a tradition of grape-growing started by his father 35 years ago on a farm where the owners continue to grow olives, corn, beans, poblano chiles and strawberries. 

The tasting room at Cuna de Tierra

Experimenting with 18 varieties of grapes, Cuna de Tierra began selling wine commercially in 2009, and now produces six reds and one white in a two-year-old winery built of concrete, iron and wood. Tours start in the vineyards on a wooden carriage pulled by a tractor. After a stop at an observation tower for chilled glasses of rosé, tastings continue inside the winery over platters of mesquite honey, farm-grown table grapes, Serrano ham and cheeses from Querétaro, the neighboring state where vineyards and wineries are bigger, older and more established than in Guanajuato.

Among the biggest is Spanish vintner Freixenet's Mexican operation, known for its sparkling cava. With tour buses crowding the parking lot and vendors hawking tacos and grape-shaped earrings, Freixenet feels like a theme park for wine enthusiasts. Smaller and more relaxed is Bodegas de Cote, opened next door to Freixenet last November. Customers enter a softly-lit lobby next to a glass-enclosed winery opened in November of 2014.  A restaurant with a wrap-around terrace overlooks the vineyards where the owners are experimenting with 24 varieties of grapes. Avan Flores, a  young chef from Mexico City, composes "tapas'' lunches, pairing the bodega's six wines with six small plates. Afterwards, visitors can tour the vineyards with a guide on foot or by bike.

The terrace restaurant at Bodegas de Cote

Newest on the regional scene is Caminos D'Vinos, a winery, restaurant, hotel and housing complex with a social purpose. Located ten miles along a remote mountain road from the city of Guanajuato, and developed by the Lintel Group,  a large Mexican construction company, the project's aim is to combat poverty in surrounding small towns with sustainable development. 

Caminos D'Vinos aims for community impact

It will be a few years before Caminos produces wines from its own French-imported vines. In the meantime, winemakers plan to use grapes grown by others to start production next year in a dome-shaped winery built on the ruins of an old silver mine. 

"What we try to do is have an impact," says Lintel president Ricardo Betancourt, who often shows up at the site in khakis and a hard hat.  "Grape vines lives 100 years or more. Because of that, you can change an area for life."

Travel tips: 

How to visit: Some wineries have regularly scheduled tours and tastings; others welcome visitors by appointment. Call ahead, or ask a travel agent to work with a local tour operator  to set up private tours that include transportation, tastings and/or lunches or dinners catered by local chefs. Guanajuato Tourism publishes a booklet with maps and information on the region's wineries. Ask for the "Circuito de Vino Guanajuato." Queretaro Tourism has wine and cheese route information on its website. 

"I recommend getting a good (Spanish-speaking) guide," says King. "The wineries are spread  out...Generally, they're not set up the way they are in Napa where you can go just wander form winery to winery and do tastings."  

When to go: Harvest season generally goes from late July  into September. Many of the wineries sponsor vendimias - wine festivals- with music, food, concerts and special tasting events. 

Weather: Parts of Guanajuato and Querétaro are 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level. Mornings and evenings are cool while days are hot and dry. 

Where to stay: Three top-end choices:  

Book a table at the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende's rooftop bar, and take in the views while sipping mezcal spiked with a Serrano chili. The 67 rooms, most with fireplaces, surround flowered courtyards and art-filled arcades in a quiet area near the Parque Juarez.  

The Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada's 37 rooms are scattered throughout a cluster of historic mansions in the heart of San Miguel. The hotel has a cooking school and a pool in a courtyard surrounded by flowered gardens and shade trees. 

The Villa María Cristina is a 33-suite boutique hotel built in 1849 as a private home in Guanajuato's posh La Presa neighborhood. Open-air balconies and tiled patios simulate life as it was century ago. After day day of sightseeing, relax in the indoor Roman bath-style pool or outdoor terrace Jacuzzi. 


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