Once upon a time, there was a fledgling wine industry. In an area that had been been dominated by peach and cherry orchards, trees were felled and vines were planted. The grape varietals that were chosen were those that had done well in similar soils, in similar climes. I bought the wines because I thought it was my patriotic Canadian duty even though they were often priced much higher than similar wines from other countries. And I continued to be patient. And I bought more of these wines, thinking some day these Canadian wines may be as celebrated as their counterparts from other countries. And finally, 50 years later, I lost patience. I stopped buying Canadian wines.
Once upon a time, there was a fledgling wine industry. In an area that had been dominated by citrus groves, trees were felled and vines were planted. The grape varietals that were chosen were those that had done well in similar soils, in similar climes. And, over the last couple of years, as I became more Mexican and less Canadian, I bought the wines because I thought it was my patriotic Mexican duty even though they were often priced much higher than similar wines from other countries. And I continued to buy more of these Mexican wines, thinking some day these wines may be as celebrated as their counterparts from other countries. And these days I can’t help but wonder if my Mexican experience is a repeat of my Canadian experience.
“The next Napa Valley.” I can’t count the number of times I heard or read those words, first, to describe Canada’s Niagara Escarpment and, then, to describe Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley in Baja California. I even heard those words come out of my own mouth a few days ago when I asked Jorge Maciel, the winemaker/owner of Cava Maciel, if he thought Baja, California will ever be as celebrated for its wines.
“I don’t think it will ever be”, said Jorge, “simply because there are different microclimates, soil, etc.”
“Provence, in the south of France and San Felipe in Chile have similar vegetation”, continued Jorge, “but they have more water than us.”
Jorge Maciel began making wine in 2000 but, in those early years, strictly as a hobby. In 2005, with the help of his wife Ana Laura Valencia, he launched Cava Maciel as a business. Their first offering was tiny but, year by year, it has grown to the point where, today, Maciel makes and markets eight different wines using many of the world’s most popular grape varietals.
My first exposure to Cava Maciel wines was at the 2017 edition of San Miguel de Allende’s Smart Awards, the annual event that recognizes the town’s favorite restaurants.
Jennifer Posner, sommelier and co-owner of Aguamiel, the host for this year’s awards, told me, “I chose Cava Maciel for the awards dinner because Jorge Maciel has an incredible portfolio of wines. I wanted to spotlight Mexican wines with this menu and decided to go with Cava Maciel because I could select the perfect white, rosado and red all from the same winery. Cava Maciel has a broad selection of both oaked and unoaked wines which provided the perfect pairing for our menu that included various chiles with seafood and rack of lamb dishes.”
The first wine served at the Smart Awards was Cava Maciel Venus 2014, a white made of two grape varietals that we seldom see in the same bottle, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There is a very low end (Santa Silvia) Mexican wine that combines the two grapes; otherwise, my only other previous experience was with a South African white.
Venus combines the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes in an 80/20 ratio and it spends no time in wood barrels. It has orange marmalade on the nose and a crispy taste with hints of green apples and grapefruit.
It does fit into my everyday wine budget of under $300 at retail but I can’t ever see me buying a case.
The next Cava Maciel we had at the Smart Awards is one I have already purchased again. Venus Rosa 2015 is another unusual grape choice from Cava Maciel. Somewhere in the world, I expect you can find rosé made from almost every grape but this is the first time I remember one made from Merlot. And it works.
The flavor is fresh and youthful with tastes of raspberries and blackberries. It makes a nice late afternoon drink without food and it’s on Aguamiel’s wine list where it’s priced at 750 pesos.
The third wine served at the Smarts was Cava Maciel Órbita 2013. This red uses another unusual but not unknown combination of grapes, Tempranillo and Petite Syrah. When I first smelled and tasted the wine at Aguamiel, I didn’t even guess there was Tempranillo in it despite it being 80% of the mix and despite it being the grape varietal I drink most of. It was the tannins and plum flavor from the Petite Syrah that confused me, despite the raspberry aroma that is a characteristic of Tempranillo.
It worked well with the lamb chops at Aguamiel and I would definitely recommend it with any red meat. Jorge Maciel told me he likes it with tacos adobada and cochinita pubil. It’s also on Aguamiel’s wine list and priced at $750.
There is one more Cava Maciel wine on Aguamiel’s list, a 2012 100% Chardonnay called Vina de Luna that spends 3 months in oak, enough to give it some toast and butter aromas. It’s one of my favorite Cava Maciel wines and it’s well priced at Aguamiel at $680.
I mentioned earlier that Cava Maciel makes eight different wines. Nine different grape varietals are grown to produce those wines. Many of the world’s wineries grow one, two, perhaps three varietals. I asked Jorge Maciel, “Why so many?”
Jorge answered, “Sometimes I ask myself the same question. For the first three years I only had three varietals and by accident due to bad weather ended up with so many more.”
I think it has a lot to do with Baja California and Cava Maciel still searching to discover the best varietals for the terroir. I’m sure that Jorge Maciel has experimented with a lot of grape combinations that have never seen the inside of the bottle and that is supported by a comment from Arael Gomez of Argot del Vino who distributes Cava Maciel wines in San Miguel de Allende.
“Jorge Maciel is a very meticulous winemaker”, said Arael. “Meticulous winemaking makes great wine.”
The rest of Cava Maciel’s offerings are all reds. They are all also premium-priced in relation to my budget so they have to be very special to make it into my little cellar.
I tasted Cava Maciel Alba 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon beside a similar priced Napa Valley Cab and my preference was very much for the California red. I did a similar tasting with Cava Maciel Lunéo 2012 Mourvèdre comparing it to a Mourvèdre from France’s Côtes de Roussillon and again the Mexican wine came in second place.
There were two reds though that did score very well.
Cava Maciel Vía Láctea 2012 Merlot was the first. The bouquet is extremely complex with plums, blackcurrants, cloves and, from the 12 months of oak aging, pecans and chocolate. Jorge Maciel says it goes great with lamb in a mole sauce and unlike the Cabernet Sauvignon, this would compare well with a Napa Valley Merlot.
The second is from a grape that Jorge Maciel thinks is especially suitable to Baja’s soil and climate and it is one of the wines that Jorge is most proud of. He should be. Apogeo 2013 Nebbiolo is, in my opinion, the best of Cava Maciel’s wines and one of the best Mexican wines I’ve ever tasted. Though I wouldn’t quite place it in the same category as Italian Barolos it does rival some of the lower-priced 100% Nebbiolo wines from the grape’s native region, Piedmont, in Italy.
So does one very good Merlot and one excellent Nebbiolo mean that Mexican wines are ready to take on the world? There has been some progress.
Jorge Maciel told me, “I am now exporting 15 to 20% and it’s growing.”
“And what does the Mexican industry need to continue growing”, I asked.
“Getting rid of IEPS, that special 26.5% tax, would help us be more successful”, Jorge replied.
To look further afield at the progress of Cava Maciel and Mexican wine, I went back to where I started on this blog post, to Canada and, more specifically, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, one of the world’s largest wine buyers.
There are only two Mexican wines among the LCBO’s thousands of listings, a Petite Syrah and a Nebbiolo, both from one of Mexico’s largest wineries, L.A. Cetto. In comparison, other “up and coming” wine areas such as Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Georgia all have considerably more wines listed.
“In the twelve years that I have been making wine, the number of Mexican wineries has tripled,” said Jorge Maciel. “Competition is always good. For the consumer it means better prices and quality. Mexico is still evolving as a wine industry.”
I asked Jorge, “25 years from now, do you think that Mexico has the potential to reach the status that countries like New Zealand and South Africa have for new world wines?”
Jorge was mostly non-committal but did say, “I hope so”.
I hope so almost as much he does.
Cava Maciel wines are available locally in San Miguel de Allende from Arael Gomez at Argot Del Vino. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The minimum order is one case but it can be a mixed one.