Aborigen Ácrata Portada 2006

This wine’s presumably grown somewhere near Ensenada – that’s the only address on the back of the bottle – but exactly where, I have no idea. All I know for sure is that this wine is half grenache, nearly half carignane, and a little bit durif. Period. Sorry.

Clearly unfiltered, swirling the wine leaves the glass with a sparkly coat of residue. The color is that massively purple purple that carignane seems to do so well; it still looks joyously young, even if the wine itself is a hair over five years old at this point. The wine is all sweet fruit with a backing of toasted acorn mush; there’s a savory, umami edge to the cheery/cherry Pop-Tart fruit and thankfully very little of the varnished carignane note I was expecting.

The first big surprise is the weight of the wine; although there appears to be quite a bit of alcohol judging by the legs, there’s not very much at all for a New World wine: just over thirteen percent. As a result, the fat, unctuous Rolland-esque mouthfeel the visuals suggest is absolutely nowhere to be found. Instead, you get a savory mouthful of dried grape and date pudding, with a long, dusky finish of subliminal oak and soft, gentle tannin.

On the whole, I really do like this wine. On the other hand, it’s something of a surprise to drink a carignane that is so tasteful and/or elegantly restrained. The other wine I’ve had from this winery was 100% carignane, twice the price, and was a massive sensorily overwhelming experience that was pure visceral pleasure. This wine, on the other hand, reminds me of what French wine is like when it’s very, very good: mineral, savory, elegant, and yet fruity without being trashy. It’s exceptional, and yet I almost find myself wishing it were more rambunctious.

Price: $30
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

Fecha 2006

I’ll keep this short. Three weeks ago, I joined Turista Libre! for an art tour to Tijuana. After visiting the Tijuana cultural center and seeing one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve seen in years (largely to do with the visual language of Tijuana), I was fortunate enough to have lunch at cielo, an amazingly good restaurant in the brand new Via Corporativo building, Tijuana’s first high-tech green office building, which also houses Mision 19, the hottest new restaurant in Mexico, as well as a new branch of la CONTRA, an impossibly stylish Mexican wine shop.

Earlier in the week, I’d seen the label for this wine on their Web site and decided that it was a categorical imperative that I buy a bottle. As luck would have it, it was not only far more expensive than I was expecting – I had to beg my partner for cash to complete the purchase – but it wasn’t even made from noble grapes, whatever that means. Oh, hell no. It’s made from Carignane, which is about as low rent as grapes get in this part of the world.

Flash forward to this evening: it’s a work night, and I’ve convinced a coworker who also knows a thing or two about good wine to come over after work and share a pizza. We start with a 1998 Clonakilla shiraz viognier, which is beautiful, elegant, tranquil, and calming – and then I figure, oh, what the hell, might as well open this bottle of Mexican wine that is probably wildly overpriced and not terribly good.

I haven’t been more wrong about a bottle of wine in years. I’ll keep this mercifully short: this is one of the best wines I have tasted in years. Much like the Mogor-Badan chasselas from the same part of the world, this wine is simultaneously breathtakingly beautiful and deceptively plain. With a sweet nose of bacon-smoked cherries, hickory wood, and dried plums, the wine suddenly detours into a wonderfully somber, heavy-tannined, plush murmur of serious bass (think Orange amplification, of course) along the lines of, say, an Om LP. This wine does all of the things that good wines do: every time you smell it, it changes: sometimes it smells of oranges and Christmas spices; other times, it smells of finely ground white pepper in a blazing white kitchen with sauerbraten cooking. The acidity is rude in the best possible way, reminding you that, hey, this is carignane, you know, and not some brain-dead Napa cab. The finish goes on so long that Rebecca Black is probably responsible for it. More than anything, else, though, is the overwhelming, ecstatic sense you get that you’ve never, ever drunk anything like this before. This, my friends, is Mexico.

Price: $75
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Monte Xanic Chardonnay 2007

It’s a funny thing: if I stand up on the roof of my house, I can see Mexico. The city where I live used to be Mexican, most of the workers in Californian vineyards are Mexican, and yet finding Mexican wine in these parts is dang near impossible. Sure, San Diego’s just an hour’s drive away from the finest vineyards in Mexico – and yet it’s easier to find Uruguayan tannat or Romanian fetească albă here than a simple Chardonnay grown just down the road.

This bottle was retrieved from Costco Mexicali; I would hazard a guess that it represents solid middle class Chardonnay in Mexico. Given the high taxes on wine in Mexico, it’s roughly twice the cost a similarly positioned California chard would cost, which is a real shame.

The wine is strikingly clear, somewhat pale gold with a tinge of green. The nose is quintessentially Burgundian, with matchstick, cashew, and cream in abundance. There are also hints of pear and toasty oak as well as something approaching cherimoya.

Unabashedly fat, the first impression I get here is frankly that of a clumsy hommage to the likes of K-J Vintners Reserve chard. This doesn’t quite hold true, though, as there appears to be no residual sugar here; more tellingly, there is plenty of acidity on the back palate to hold off the initial creamy onslaught. Even so, the overall effect is of dairy cream candy a thousand miles away from Chablis – until the finish, that is, when the acidity takes over and almost allows the wine to finish on a refreshing note… almost.

This is a curious wine and damn near a very good one indeed. My only real problem here is that it seems to be somewhat undecided about what it wants to be: all signs point towards creamy, lees-y, over-the-top Californian chardonnay, and yet that finish betrays its European side more than anything else. Ultimately, though, it’s a lot more interesting than other wines in its price class and definitely worth checking out. (Just don’t try to bring more than one bottle back if you’re a California resident and you’re driving yourself back across the border – I learned the hard way that Draconian laws here will result in a lengthy detention in secondary inspection while la migra waits for you to empty all of your other bottles into a sink. Oops.)

Monte Xanic
Price: $20
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

Tabla Numero Uno 2008

Just for grins, click here to see where this wine was grown – it’s about as far off of the beaten path as you can get in North America. I had to zoom out at least half a dozen times (in Google Maps) before I had even the vaguest idea where in Mexico these grapes were grown: turns out it’s Zacatecas, a relatively obscure state south of Coahuila, which is where the first winery in the New World was constructed all the way back in 1597.

The vineyard is 2,057 meters above sea level, which would probably explain how it’s at possible, and why this is a moderate 12.2 pct. alcohol, which is very low for anywhere in North America. But let’s skip all of the geography and technical details and jump straight to the wine.

It’s a lovely, deep, rich, dark red wine; it isn’t lacking for color. It gets immediately interesting on the nose; at first, I thought I smelled sweet, dusty fruit; after a few minutes, it changed to a slightly sweeter, incredibly unusual nose with a tinge of mulberry and something approaching volatile acidity. More than anything, though, it smells of damp earth, coffee, soft red fruits, and fig paste.The taste of the wine is a surprise, but only briefly; with Malbec, I’m preconditioned to expect more alcohol, so the initial approach of the wine seemed disappointing: it’s not a monster, so you don’t get the thickness the alcohol lends. It does fill out rapidly after that, though, with a fairly rich, thick midpalate accented by sweet, dusty notes but again with that charming coffee-like, smoky note that I’m guessing is strictly from oak. The finish sings on for a good half a minute, alternately sweet and savory, and often with a wonderfully intriguing oakiness, but only just. On the down side, there’s a very slight, only occasionally noticeable component that seems faulty, but I can’t say exactly what it is (I’m thinking volatile acidity, but I’m just not sure). In short, it’s not factory wine.

If I had to compare this wine to anything, it would be to an imaginary Beaujolais that had been aged in lightly toasted oak barrels; I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like this. It almost reminds me of some of the lesser known southern French wines like Cotes du Marmandais, but what really stands out here is the impressive length of the wine, going on as it does.

Yes, this is about as obscure as it gets – I found this wine in a small shop in Mexicali, the capital of Baja California, yesterday (and wound up in secondary inspection at Customs because I didn’t realize that the state of California only allows residents to return with one liter of any kind of alcoholic beverages… oops) – but this is worth seeking out for anyone who’s interested in what you can do in new winegrowing areas with traditional grapes. Of all the Malbecs I’ve had, this isn’t as immediately delicious as, say, most midrange Argentine malbecs, but the Zacatecan expression of the grape is pretty damn interesting. Of course, this is probably too much money to pay for what you’re getting here – you could have a mind-blowing Argentine malbec for about the same amount – but you’ll never have tasted a wine like this before.

Viñedos Santa Elena
Price: $32
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Monte Xanic Malbec Limited Edtiion 2006

Unctuous and richly spicy at first, the nose of this wine reveals itself in short order to be more than that. There’s a fleeting sweetness, a hint of acidity, and then a full-on reveal of rich red fruits. At other times, there’s a dusty, dry spiciness that reminds me of things in the back of the spice cabinet that haven’t been opened in a while: something along the lines of allspice, bay leaf, and nutmeg.

Wonderfully complex, the initial impression is of simple, generous fruit, but then tannins sweep in at once to announce the serious intent of this bottle. These are quickly joined by sweet-leaf dried tobacco notes accompanied by just a hint of well-toasted barrel spice; then, it slowly, slowly, slowly fades into a ridiculously lengthy finish of slippery tannin, dark plummy fruit, and a hint of rosewater.

Delicious in ways that Malbec often isn’t, to me this is another example of how good Mexican wine can be. The climate in Baja California works well for grapes that thrive at greater levels of ripeness, and yet it has been judiciously harvested here, giving you the fullness of a New World wine and yet all of the spice and complexity of the Old. If anything, this reminds me greatly of some of the French producers in Argentina such as Lindaflor; the overall result is intoxicating, sophisticated, and just plain delightful.

Monte Xanic
Price: MXN 438 (US $34)
Closure: Cork

Champbrulé Brut NV

I flew to Mexico City yesterday for the first time in 25 years: I’m spending a week here on vacation with friends and family. Walking around after the afternoon thundershowers, I thought I’d see if I could buy some Mexican wine. Thankfully, the locals were incredibly friendly and pointed me towards a small wines and spirits only shop two blocks from my apartment that was filled to the roof (literally) with the kind of international wine selection you’d expect in any world class city: Champagne, Chablis, Rioja, Brunello, all of the world’s greatest hits. I was hoping to find some of Freixenet’s Mexican wines, but all they had was their Spanish wines. I asked in terrible Spanish if they had any Mexican sparkling wines… and yes, they found two wines in stock. They fetched it from the top shelf, dusted it off, sold it to me, and here’s what I remember about it from last night:

This appears to be traditionally vinified with second fermentation in the bottle. Beautifully packaged, with all of things you’d expect (perforated foil, custom printed cage, etc.), it appears to have been produced by something called Wine Products of Tijuana, which to my American ears isn’t appetizing. However, the wine itself is most definitely appetizing, with a fine, persistent bead and appealing yellow color. There’s not too much by way of smells, here, alas, but that’s no problem as the wine is eminently drinkable, full in the mouth, and (thankfully) no more residual sugar than any other wine in this class. This is a well crafted wine and can definitely hold its own with any American wine in this price range; to me, this is even slightly preferable to Korbel thanks to its restraint with regard to sweetness levels. I’d buy it again.

Casa Madero Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

There’s a hint of boysenberry fruit leather to this wine; it seems ever so slightly stewy, but is it intentional? Is this meant to run along the lines of a full-bore McLaren Vale cabernet? Or is this a traditional claret that failed, slightly? Color-wise, it seems a bit watery at the rim, with a dark purple, orangey-red hue, relatively unusual for Cabernet; it definitely looks more Old World than New.

With some time, it has kind of a chocolate tobacco box smell to it, but again with a stewed berry component. There’s also a fair whack of something like damp earth – it’s a very earthy, loamy smell that suggests just the tiniest hint of brettanomyces. It’s not unpleasant, just subtly present.Fairly acidic and bright, the wine doesn’t taste anything like it smells, and pretty much nothing like what American wines taste like. There seems to be a tomato-leaf note here, which isn’t too bad, along with a hint of licorice; overall, it’s a bit flat, but there’s a spiciness and nerve that’s moderately appealing. The tannins are very well judged, providing firm support right through the finish; they’re nicely ripe and provide a useful counterpoint to the acidity.

Thinking about this wine a bit more, some more traditional fruit flavors do arrive, but even then, they verge on the porty and, well, confected (with apologies to Julian for saying that). Ultimately, this seems like a wine that does as well as it can given the circumstance; this is from the oldest winery in the Americas (they’re now in their 5th century of production), and it’s in what probably seems like an insane location to most winemakers: the Mexican state of Coahuila, which is improbably located well inland from the Gulf of Mexico a few hundred miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas. Given the presumably difficult climate, and given the quality of Azteca de Oro brandy, it seems like table wines might not be the best call for this area, but you know what? This wine is still a lot more interesting than many wines we produce here in California, so I think it’s worth a look. Heck, I’d love to try their high end wines – of course, God only knows where you could find them (and I’m not traveling to México City any time soon, alas).

Casa Madero
$159 (about US $15)
Date tasted:
May 2008