Saturday, December 24, 2016

Searching for Mexican Wine on the Mayan Riviera

(Dec. 2016) The last time I visited Mexico was in Cabo San Lucas where you can buy a glass of Mexican wine in almost every restaurant. This is because more than 80% of Mexican wine is produced there in the Baja Peninsula, south of California. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and cool wet winters, and is ideal for wine grape growing.

Beautiful White Sand Beaches of the Mayan Riviera, Mexico


However, this time I traveled to the opposite side of the country to the Mayan Riviera located on the Yucatan Peninsula and bordered by the Caribbean Ocean. Here the climate is much more humid, with an average temperature of 80 F degrees year-round. Lush jungles embrace miles of white sandy beaches, and the exquisitely colored turquoise water is warm and balmy. Due to the climate, most visitors drink margaritas or beer (cerveza). And though I found bottles of Mexican wine for sale in restaurants, I struggled to find any wine by the glass.

About the Mayan Riviera

The Mayan Riviera of Mexico stretches from Cancun in the north to the temples of Tulum in the south, with the town of Playa del Carmen in the middle, and the island of Cozumel just a short ferry ride away. Huge resorts line the fluffy white sand beaches, and the area is filled with many delicious restaurants and fun shops. Scuba-diving, snorkeling and deep sea fishing are amongst the most popular tourist activities, as well as visiting the ancient Mayan cities and the unique “cenotes” – sink holes with fresh water that often form underground caves.

A "Cenote" Sink Hole Cavern

It is hard to believe that a mere fifty years ago there were only sleeping fishing villages along the coast. Today it is a booming international tourist destination, identified by the Mexican government in the 1960’s as part of the country’s mega-development projects, which also included Los Cabos in the Baja Peninsula.

Resort Hotels Along Beach in Playa del Carmen

The Ancient Mayan Civilization

I was fascinated to learn more about the Mayan culture, which is considered to be one of the great civilizations of the world, with amazing knowledge of science and architecture – similar to the ancient Egyptians.

The Mayans actually lived not only in this part of Mexico, but further south and into Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. However their capital, Mayapan (for which they are named), was located in the Yucatan Peninsula. The original people were called Olmecs (1500-200 BCE), and they carved huge heads out of stones – many of which are still around to be viewed – but most of the famous stone cities and pyramids of the region, such as Chichen Itza and Coba, were built in the Classic Period from 250 – 950 CE.

Mayan Temple Ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, the famous Mayan walled city near the ocean, was built during the Post Classic period, around 1200 CE.  In addition to their great architecture skills, the Mayans were also well-known for their skills in astrology and mathematics, and the creation of the Mayan calendar. We visited Tulum and found the site to be fascinating, as well as the lovely white sandy beach below.

Ancient Mayan City of Tulum Near the Ocean

Food and Wine Found Along the Mayan Riviera

After talking with many people who had visited the area previously, I decided to stay in Playa del Carmen, because it is supposedly a little less touristy and crowded than Cancun and Cozumel. My hotel was the all-inclusive, ROYAL, located on a huge white sandy beach and only one block from the famous Quinta (5th) Avenue – a pedestrian only street with many restaurants and colorful street artists.

The Royal All-Inclusive Resort at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

The resort has eight restaurants, and they featured a total of 27 different bottles of Mexican wine, which is impressive. Prices ranged from $44 for a Monte Xanic Chenin Blanc/Colombard blend to $113 for Icaro Nebbiolo and Bordeaux Blend. These wines illustrate the penchant of Mexican wineries to focus on innovative blends. However, since I was traveling with my daughter, and she doesn’t drink wine, I didn’t want to purchase a whole bottle for myself. Thus I was forced to sample the six wines by the glass that they did offer – all from Spain and Chile.

Mexican Food with a Glass of Chilean Chardonnay

The food in and outside of the resort was all fresh and tasty. We focused on the local fish, most of which had been caught that day, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. We gorged ourselves on guacamole and other Mexican food favorites, such as cheese quesadillas, enchiladas, and fajitas.

Finding a Mexican Wine on the Last Night – Casa Madera Winery


On our last evening we ventured out to a Mexican restaurant called Maria’s at the Gran Porto, and I finally found a half bottle of Mexican wine to order. It was recommended by the server with great pride in his voice, and when I saw the bottle, I knew why. It was a 2014 Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very excited when I saw this wine because I’ve always wanted to taste it, and the price was reasonable at 375 pesos (around $18). Regular price in a store is around $9, so this was a 100% mark-up, which is normal in restaurants.

Mexican Steak and Shrimp with Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon

Established in 1597, Casa Madera is reputed to be the oldest winery in all of the Americas. Located 70 miles west of Monterrey, Mexico, it is nestled in the Valley de Parras, a mountainous region with an elevation of around 4900 feet, which provides the cooler more temperate climate that winegrapes love.

As the server deftly uncorked the wine, then poured a small amount for me to taste, I noticed that it was lighter in color than I expected – a medium-dark ruby red. The nose was enticing with ripe berries and plum. This carried through on the palate with subtle oak notes and spice. It had smooth silky tannins, good balance, and showed its New World pedigree in the ripe and approachable style. The cab paired very well with the rib-eye and shrimp combo I was having, along with a red spicy mole and rice.



The experience was very positive, and made me want to sample more wines from Casa Madera. Someday it would be nice to visit such a famous historical winery.

A short video highlighting our time on the Mayan Riviera can be found HERE.


A Wish for More Local Wines by the Glass


As I finish this post, I can’t help but reiterate my wish for all global wine regions to feature their local wines in restaurants and bars in a “by-the-glass format” so that tourists can taste them. Only offering local wines by the bottle is a deterrent for many visitors, because they don’t know how the wines will taste. A by-the-glass offering is much less risky, and encourages exploration. Restaurants are already featuring local cuisine – why not show-off local wines as well?  A simple investment in a Coravin makes this option much more feasible, because the restaurant doesn’t have to worry about the wine spoiling. My hope is that more places along the Mayan Riviera will begin to showcase wines from Mexico by the glass.

References

  • Berger, D. (2006). The Development of Mexico's Tourism Industry: Pyramids by Day, Martinis by Night. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Covarrubias, J. & Thach, L. (2016). Mexican Wine, Beer or Tequila: The Amazing Resilience of Mexico’s Wine Industry. Winebusiness.com, Feb. 1, 2016. Available at: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=164050
  • Hinsdale, J.E. (2015). Explorer’s Guide to Playa del Carmen, Tulum & the Riviera Maya. Vermont: Countryman Press.
  • History.com (2014). Maya History. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/maya
  • Mark, J. (2012). Maya Civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at http://www.ancient.eu/Maya_Civilization/



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