Drinking in Mexico City: Vino, Pulque and Mezcal
When we think of drinking in Mexico, most of us think cerveza and tequila, maybe margaritas and micheladas. Mexican wine isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, few foreigners know about pulque, and many think mezcal (or mescal) is tequila.
We were eager to learn more about all three, so when Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico said she was developing a drinking tour of Mexico City, we thought we’d help her test it out. Not that we need any encouragement to go drinking in Mexico City…
Our first stop is El Encrucijada, a cosy wine bar on calle Atlixco in the hip Condesa neighbourhood with just six tables and a bar. With its Italian enoteca-style — lots of wood, mirrors and barrels — it would be right at home in Europe. The owner, Jose Juan, is passionate about wine and passionate about getting Mexicans and visitors to Mexico City to drink more Mexican wine.
Few people realize that Mexican winemaking dates back to the 16th century when the Spanish brought grape vines here from Europe. Discovering that the grapes grew well, they soon began producing wine and exporting it to Europe.
“This winery has an interesting history,” Jose says, as he pours us each a glass of white, a Chenin Blanc from Casa Madero. “The winery is in the Valle de Parras, in the Coahuila region south of Monterrey, and it’s the oldest winery in Latin America.” And the Western Hemisphere apparently!
“The history of Mexican wine is very sad though… it really begins in the 16th century with a royal order from the Spanish king to grow grapes — one hectare in every region — and the establishment of Casa Madero winery at the San Lorenzo hacienda in 1597, not long after Cortez conquered the Aztecs, after Spanish priests and soldiers planted vines in a valley west of what’s now Monterrey. They built a mission and produced wine from the grapes.”
It was another royal order that led to the downfall of Mexican wine, it seems. “Because the Mexican wines were becoming more popular than Spanish wine, and were competition to the Spanish wines — and this is the sad part,” Jose reveals. “There was a royal order to prohibit winemaking in Mexico!” Informal, mainly religious, wine production continued, but it wasn’t very good quality, Jose says.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that wine production in Mexico really started again. “Now we’re creating classic New World wines, and Mexico is considered to be part of the second wave of the New World Wines, alongside wine-growing countries such as Bulgaria and Slovenia.” The first wave of New World wine producing countries from the Americas comprised Chile, Argentina and California.
We taste the wine and it’s fresh, light, and easy to drink. Not bad at all. Our second wine is another from Casa Madero, a 2008 red made from Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. It’s dry and fruity. We taste lots of berries and a hint of tobacco.
“This wine goes well with semi-strong cheeses and mole,” Jose says. “And it costs just 160 pesos (around US$12 or £8) which is great value. Today, we’re trying good value wines. There’s a 40% tax on wines in Mexico and that makes it hard for winemakers to compete so these are not only good wines, but great value wines.”
Next up is an Entretanto Vino Tinto, 2008, made from Carignan and Syrah grapes, from Aguascalientes. “It’s cultivated at 2000 metres, which is a different altitude to the Baja California wines,” Jose says. “The winemaker is experimenting with the altitude to try to create a similar intensity, although there’s not as much sun as Baja California.” We try the wine and it’s delish with loads of berries.
Our last wine is a Carignan from Baja California, a 2007 from JC Bravo “This wine has spent 11 months in the barrels and there’s a nice balance of dry and fruity flavours. This is a small vineyard, small production, but the wine is high quality because it’s their own grapes and they’re not buying in other grapes.”
“Mexico is modelling itself on the Argentina industry, producing small amounts of wine at a high price and only exporting small amounts,” Jose tells us. “I don’t agree with this. I’d rather we do what Chile is doing. I want Mexican wine to be more popular than it is. I also want to see it integrated into Mexican culture more.”
We completely agree and are happy to do our bit! The wines we tried were very good, if not great, but we’d rather buy decent drops of local vino and support the Mexican industry than buy imported wines. Wouldn’t you? The fact that we’ve been seeing tables of Mexican women on girls nights out ordering bottles of wine rather than margaritas could be a sign that the locals agree.
Our next stop is Expendio de Pulques Finos, a pulquería in a splendid turn-of-the-century house on Insurgentes Sur in Roma Norte, another hip Mexico City ’hood. With its dim lighting and tables of 20-something, dreadlocked, arty types, it feels a bit like a student pub.
“This place opened about 4 months ago,” Lesley tells us. “People said to them “You’re the first to open in many years!” Traditional pulquerías had been dying out in Mexico City until recently. The pulque market boomed until the beginning of the 20th century, then beer arrived and virtually shut down the industry. There were only a few left until recently. Now the pulquería is becoming cool.”
Exactly how many pulquerias are left in Mexico City is up for debate. Some say dozens, others think scores. Our Mexican friends tell us there are still hundreds, it’s just they tend to be in seedy barrios gringos don’t go to.
“This one is more like a cantina,” Lesley explains. “But the old pulquerías are hole-in-the-wall places with bright fluorescent lighting and saloon doors. Women weren’t allowed into them until the 1980s.”
Expendio de Pulques Finos is part of a new breed of pulquería that’s become popular with Mexico City’s hipsters, partly due to the novelty, partly because pulque is cheap. The drink of the Gods during the Aztec era, it’s the drink of the common man in modern Mexico.
“Drinking pulque is a long tradition that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. The Aztecs believed it had medicinal qualities and used it in sacred rituals,” Lesley tells us. “Pulque is made from the fermented juice of the maguey plant. It mainly comes from Tlaxcala state. Someone brings the pulque here and then they add the fruit to flavour it, curing it here in barrels.”
Lesley describes the production process to us. “When a tree sprouts out of the maguey plant, they know it’s ready. They remove the tree and at the heart of the plant, they have a fruit, the piña. They dip a gourd into the fruit and suck out the aguamiel (sap) and it goes into a bucket. They get around seven litres each time. They ferment it for about three days. Traditionally, it was served in terracotta jugs.”
As if on cue the barman arrives at our table with three small terracotta jugs or jarros of pulque (just 15 pesos — US$1.15 or £0.75 — each!) and Lesley produces some tiny tasting cups. First up, we try the natural pulque. It’s milky-looking, has a slightly nauseating yeasty smell, and a viscous, almost glutinous, texture. The mouth-feel is like a thick guava juice — loads of fibre! — and it goes down like an enormous oyster. For those who don’t like oysters…
Next is a guava-flavoured pulque and this one is delicious, like the natural pulque but with a pleasant flavour. Lastly, we try a carrot and beetroot-flavoured pulque and it’s equally scrumptious and very moreish.
Our verdict? While it was great to try something different, we couldn’t see ourselves becoming connoisseurs of pulque. It lacks the complexity of wine, and wouldn’t match well with food — with so much fibre it’s virtually a meal in itself. Our tip? Try the natural pulque, just so you know what it takes like and can say you can, but make sure you try a range of fruit flavours too.
Our last stop is the funky Fly Mezcalina. Like pulque, mezcal has also been experiencing a revival in popularity in Mexico City and Fly, and its owner Cornelio Perez, a writer on mezcal, have played an important role in rescuing a dying tradition and inspiring a renaissance of sorts with weekly Tuesday night Mezcal tastings.
Cornelio is about to begin the first instructed tasting (in Spanish) to a long table of about 30 jolly locals when we arrive — a little late, but hey, this is Mexico City.
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the piña or heart of the maguey plant, a type of agave, but unlike tequila, where the maguey is steamed, for mezcal it’s roasted in a pit in the ground, which is what gives it the enticing smoky flavour. Although maguey grows all over the country, mezcal comes from the Oaxaca region, and is made in pretty much the same way that it was made a couple of hundred years ago, distilled in a copper pot. Just 200-300 bottles are produced a year!
Unlike tequila, which is often mixed to make cocktails, mezcal is generally drunk straight. Cornelio’s waiters pour everyone tiny shot glasses of mezcal from Zacatecas. There are tiny bubbles. We’re told the bubbles indicate the strength of alcohol — the more bubbles there are, the higher the alcohol content.
Cornelio instructs us all on how we should taste it. The first step is to dip a finger into the glass and rub a little onto our hand, between the thumb and pointer-finger and, well, smell it! But it shouldn’t be a normal sniff, Cornelio advises, it should be a series of short inhalations. With our lips closed! What we are smelling, he tells us, is the maguey plant. It should smell potent but clear and clean; if we’re smelling anything else then the mezcal is probably bad. It smells very potent.
Next, Cornelio asks us all to sip the mezcal and swish it around in our mouths, just as we would wine. This raises the temperature and opens up the aromas. He advises doing this three times! The third time, once our mouths are attuned to the potency of the spirit, we should start to pick up the complexity of flavours.
The mezcal has a strong smoky flavour. It’s unique, and although it’s certainly not the first time we’ve tried mezcal, there is something special about this mezcal. It’s probably because they come from very small producers which Cornelio discovers on trips to Oaxaca. It’s heady but complex.
Another mezcal is poured for us and we follow the same steps. This one has floral hints on the nose and a more complex taste and we prefer this one. Cornelio stops by our table to find out what we think.
“Unlike wine, none of the mezcals spend much time in the barrel,” he explains. “What are you going to do with those barrels when they’re done?!” Cornelio jokes. “Mezcal could keep for 10 years and the taste wouldn’t change!”
The long table of locals are getting quite rowdy — everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Another glass of mezcal is poured for everyone. What did that one taste like? Well were starting to note the flavour differences, but things are getting decidedly hazy by this stage…