Don Day used to go to beaches. Don Day used to go to big cities. Don Day used to go to castles. Don Day used to go to ski resorts. These days, Don Day has one of those been there, done that attitudes. He only goes to places where they offer something very special to eat or drink. These days, Don Day is often an oenotourist.
Oenotourism. Talk about a mouthful. Talk about a butt ugly word. Even if you drop that first “o” and spell it enotourism or use that other term vinitourism, it’s still got five syllables.
Oenotourism is basically a holiday that focuses on wine. However life’s a holiday for Don Day and all of Don Day’s holidays focus somewhat on wine so I guess I have to be a little more specific. If I include that oenotourism involves visiting vineyards, that should do it.
Oenotourism has been a big deal in Europe for decades. In the mid seventies, it also started to be a big deal in California. In Mexico it’s taken a little longer to catch on. But that’s mostly because Mexican wine has taken a little longer to catch on. I took a look today at the latest edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and of the 300 plus pages there’s still only one devoted to Mexican wine. And that’s about right when you figure that Mexico only represents about .36% of the world’s output.
The Valle de Guadelupe was the first part of Mexico to get into the wine tourism business. But then it was also the first region in Mexico to get recognition for decent Mexican wine. About five years ago, organized tours, mostly originating out of Ensenada, the fishing port on the west coast that, if you drive like Don Day’s Wife, is only about two hours south of San Diego, started exploring the wineries that were springing up in the Northern Baja.
Now there’s a new wine region. At least if you believe the Wine Route signs that have been put up by the government. And it’s all within an hour or two of San Miguel de Allende.
In wine regions all over France, Italy and Spain you can sometimes hit five different wineries in just ten kilometers of driving. In Mexico, it’s a little different. Bodega Dos Buhos, Vinicola Toyan, Freixenet, Rancho Santa Gloria, La Redonda and Los Rosales are all wineries an easy day trip from San Miguel de Allende but combining more than two in a tour can make it a very long day. And as that day involves the consumption of wine, it can be a dangerous day. Don Day has been known to end up in a ditch on his most sober of days.
The good thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The good thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. Don Day’s advice: Get a DD, hire a driver, or splurge a little on a taxi and spend the day at the winery that Don Day thinks is simply one of the best ways to spend any of your days if you live in or are visiting San Miguel de Allende.
I met Ricardo Vega in Los Cuatro Milpas, a San Miguel restaurant. We were both sat at a table with a glass of red in front of us. Which is more than enough reason to talk to any stranger. Ricardo is an owner of Cuna de Tierra, a winery located about 40 km away from San Miguel in Dolores Hidalgo. I told Ricardo I hadn’t had any Cuna de Tierra wine for a few years. He said I should. He was right. He asked if I’d ever been to the Cuna de Tierra winery. I said I hadn’t. He said I should. He was right.
Wine was being produced by the Roman Catholic church around Dolores Hidalgo almost three hundred years ago. About a hundred years after that, the priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, one of the heroes of the Mexican revolution, was one of the celebrated growers. In 1810, the Spanish government sent in soldiers to destroy the vineyards and prevent them from competing with Spanish imports. It was an act that helped lead to El Grito, the cry by Father Hidalgo to launch the revolution. Ricardo Vega’s family bought the land forty years ago. When Cuna de Tierra was started about 16 years ago, the founders were confident that the soil conditions and climate would be ideal for growing outstanding grapes.
It’s only about a 35 minute drive to Cuna de Tierra from San Miguel. At this time of year, much of Mexico is emerald green and the wild flowering grasses look good enough to pick and arrange into bouquets. The housing estates along the road to Dolores have the tallest of walls, grandest of gates and most pretentious of names but still resemble empty parking lots. Antique shops, some of them with antiques younger than Don Day’s grandchildren, beckon with the best distressed surfaces you’ll ever see. And the hole in the wall restaurants you pass all specialize in a dish that includes the adjective rico.
The entrance to Cuna de Tierra is quite subtle with only a grapevine sculpture of the winery’s artistic (but somewhat obscure) logo symbolizing the cradle of the earth visible when you enter. There are about 40 acres of vines planted at the winery and it’s a welcoming sight to drive through some of them before you reach the first evidence of commercialization.
That evidence is a lookout tower, about ten metres tall, very mid-century modern in its natural concrete form, nestled amongst the distinctively shaped leaves of cabernet sauvignon vines. It wasn’t difficult for Don Day to stand up there (and Don Day’s Wife to sit down up there) and imagine the pride a farmer must have when he looks out over his almost-ready-to-harvest crop.
In the base of the tower, a handsome table is the centrepiece of a room occasionally used for dinners and tastings. I was sad that we weren’t going to use the room during our visit. Sad until we reached the prime building where all of the steps in the winemaking operation take place and I saw what was planned for there.
It’s another midcentury modern structure with tall, windswept grasses giving it a zenlike appearance. Pea gravel scrunched beneath our feet as we walked on to the paved courtyard and passed the bicycles used for touring the vineyards.
Back in the seventies, when Don Day first experienced oenotourism and visited wineries in France, most of them were dark, dank dungeons that smelled of mold, mildew and malt vinegar. The only art on the walls was created by spiders and one expected Bela Lugosi to emerge from behind a barrel at any moment. It always seemed that you were taking the proprietor away from something far more important than making money by selling you wine.
Oh how times have changed. Cuna de Tierra‘s winery is so clean I could hear my shoes squeaking as we inspected the stainless steel cold settling tanks. The lights were bright enough when we paraded past the barrels to read where in France, the United States or Hungary they came from.
Cuna de Tierra is currently marketing five wines commercially but before we tasted them, Ricardo Vega wanted an opinion on a wine that was yet to be bottled.
Now when Don Day hears the words Nebbiolo grapes it’s like hearing the words naked women. It gets Don Day very excited. Because Don Day thinks that Nebbiolo is one of the world’s great red wines.
About five years ago, Don Day tasted some Mexican Nebbiolo that was being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe and Don Day still has very fond and very vivid memories of that evening. Though it didn’t rival the great Barolos that are made from the finicky Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont, Italy, it could stand tall against the mid range Italian wines made from the grape in Northwestern Italy.
For Cuna de Tierra‘s first experience with Nebbiolo, the winery isn’t growing the grapes.
“If we planted vines now, it would be six years before there would be grapes ready to harvest so, as an experiment, we had them shipped in from the coast”, Ricardo Vega told me.
“Unlike other wineries that are blending Nebbiolo with Cabernet Franc or Syrah, we’re including some Tempranillo in the blend.”
Don Day (and Don Day’s Wife) certainly liked the result. The wine had the typical Nebbiolo nuances of violets, roses, mushrooms and prunes and I think Nebbiolo may have a better future than any other grape in Mexico.
The first wine we sampled from Cuna de Tierra‘s current commercial offering was Torre de Tierra white. It was the first time Don Day had even seen Cuna de Tierra`s Semillon since I first sampled it in the restaurant El Tomate on Mesones three or four years ago.
When Day Day used to spend a little time in the southwest of France, Don Day drank considerable amounts of Semillon though most often in a blend with Sauvignon Blanc and/or Muscadelle. Semillon is a favorite white grape but, if it’s not in a blend, it`s not one I usually choose. I would have liked more fruit and acidity in the Torre de Tierra but it was fine and as it`s rare to ever see any Mexican Semillon it was a pleasant surprise.
“We’re finding it challenging to grow white in this climate”, said Ricardo Vega, “but we’re continuing to experiment. We now have some Sauvignon Blanc planted but it will be a while before we’re ready to include it in a blend.”
Accompanying the Torre de Tierra white was a magnificent plate of meats and cheeses sourced from Luna de Queso on Salida a Celaya in San Miguel and prepared by the winery’s private (and handsome according to Don Day’s Wife) chef Julian Goldstone.
It was followed by a plate of ruby red smoked trout and the first of Cuna de Tierra‘s red wines.
Cuna de Tierra 2012 red is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc. It spends 9 months in a mix of new and one year old oak barrels and another 6 months in the bottle.
“I prefer my wines to be less oaky”, Ricardo Vega told me. “I prefer to let the grapes win not the wood.”
The influences from the oak are quite subtle in the Cuna de Tierra red and there are nice fruity flavors of cherries and black currants.
The second red we sampled, Pago de Vega 2011 is Cuna de Tierra‘s premium offering and spends 15 months in new oak barrels and 12 months in the bottle before it goes to market. The current blend is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc.
“The tendency is to low alcohol and that’s where we’re going with our wines. I want to keep Pago de Vega at no more than 13%”, Ricardo Vega told me.
“It’s not hard to make wine but it’s hard to make good wine. The secret is in the blending…how to put different grapes together to end with something that is much more than the sum of its parts.”
Pago de Vega has similarities to a Bordeaux and the grapes used in the blend are four of the six allowed in a Bordeaux. It had a more refined taste than the first red with similar berry fruit on the nose but this time with more earthy and graphite aromas. Don Day has had Pago de Vega a few times in his life but only when other people are paying and likes just about everything about it except its price tag. It sells at retail for over $500 pesos a bottle which is even beyond Don Day’s splurge budget.
A fine risotto with shrimp had now arrived at the table as had Juan Manchon, Cuna de Tierra‘s winemaker. Juan grew up next door to Cuna de Tierra and, after earning a degree in oenology in Spain, returned to Mexico to take over the winemaking operation.
Our last wine was Mistela, a sweet white that bears Juan Manchon’s name and Ricardo Vega teased Don Day for a while with what grape it was made from. I failed the quiz miserably but I had a reason. The grape was one that the workers in the vineyard take home for their families. It’s a no name that is simply known as table grapes.
In San Miguel de Allende there is an absolute dearth of good sweet wines. Lately, the only thing Don Day has found at La Europea, our largest wine store is a Chilean late harvest Reisling that just doesn’t do it. I decided then and there to buy a case of Vino Generoso Mistela. Especially when I heard that a 500 ml bottle goes for $90 pesos.
Along with that case and a lot of fine memories of a day very well spent, I took one other thing home that afternoon, a bottle of Torre de Tierra red, the one Cuna de Tierra wine that I hadn’t tasted at the winery. It took me almost a day to open it.
Cuna de Tierra‘s Torre de Tierra red combines 80% Tempranillo with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it’s the same blend as Vino de Piedra, one of the most celebrated and successful of all Mexican wines originating in the Valle de Guadelupe.
Don Day liked Torre de Tierra. If I had closed my eyes, as I often do after three or four glasses of wine, I would have thought that I was drinking a Rioja which isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world. Torre de Tierra red has done well in tastings against some tough competition, some fine Riojas right in their homeland, Spain. It’s not that available in Mexico. But it should be.
Don Day doesn’t often leave San Miguel de Allende in search of food and drink. Perhaps because San Miguel has so much to offer without ever stepping beyond its borders. But I should. And so should you. A day trip to Cuna de Tierra is a way to savor very good wine accompanied by very good food in delightful surroundings. It’s not the cheapest day you’ll ever spend. But if I think I’m worth it, you most definitely are.
Cuna de Tierra is located at Carretera Dolores Hidalgo – San Luiz de la Paz, Kilometer 11, in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. There are numerous packages available that range from a simple tour through the vineyard with a glass of wine to a four course meal with four glasses of wine prepared by chef Julian Goldstone. Reservations are essential and can be made at 415 152 8205. The winery can also assist with arranging transportation.