Everything Old is New Again: Wine in Mexico & Turkey

This is the seventh  in a series of articles on wine in the BRICs and the New BRICs. Today we examine Mexico & Turkey.

Old Old and Old New

What in the world do Turkey and Mexico have in common? It is easy to generate a list of differences ranging from geography to history, language, and religion. Jim O’Neil probably included them on his list of the New BRICs because they both have relatively large populations (107 million in Mexico, 75 million in Turkey) and so substantial market potential as their middle classes expands

From a wine standpoint, Mexico and Turkey are linked by the term “oldest.” Turkey may be the oldest Old World wine producer, with evidence of wine production going back more than 6000 years. You cannot get much more “Old World” wine than Turkey, even if most people in the Old World never give Turkish wine a second thought.

Mexico is the oldest wine producer in the New World. Spanish soldiers and priests brought wine grapes with them,  The first evidence of wine production dates from 1521 (I see a 500 year anniversary celebration on the horizon). Conquistador Cortés ordered that new settlers plant grape vines (1000 vines for every 100 persons, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine), thus spreading Spain’s wine culture throughout the New World empire. Wine production in Mexico grew so successful that King Felipe II of Spain order a stop to new production in 1699 in an effort to protect Spain’s domestic wine industry.

Red and White vs Raki and Brandy

It is ironic that we don’t associate wine production with these two countries today given their deep historical roots. Turkey? It’s a Muslim country, of course, so we don’t think of alcohol or, if we do, it is raki, the fiery anise flavored drink. Mexico brings images of tequila (and wasting away in Margaritaville), beer, and perhaps Mexican brandy, the national liquor. Casa Pedro Domecq’s Presidente brand is said to be the best selling brandy in the world. Domecq is now part of the French drinks group Pernod Ricard.

Both Mexico and Turkey are important grape and wine producing nations today. Mexico produced a little over 1 million hectoliters of wine in 2007 according to OIV data — about  as about as much as New Zealand made in 2005 before its recent boom. Turkey is the world’s sixth largest table grape producer, surpassing Italy in this area, but only a small fraction of its output is made into wine. Turkey makes roughly the same amount of wine (213,000 hl) as Israel (218,000 hl).

Wine production in Mexico has fallen by almost 50% since the 1980s according to the OIV records while Turkey’s production levels have been more stable. Both Turkey and Mexico have the potential to rise up in the world wine rankings, but they each face particular challenges.

The Taste of Turkish Wine

Turkish wines can be stunningly good. Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes (from a 2009 research trip) find many peaks among wines make from international grape varieties. A Corvus Corpus 2004 received a rating of 17/20, for example. “This right bank style wine is really quite rich and full, verging on overripe. Extremely opulent and velvety.” A Robert Parker kinda wine, she said.

Ron and Mary Thomas, my senior Turkish wine correspondents, reported similar success on their 2010 tasting trip. “We found the wines of Turkey to be ubiquitous, great values, and extremely enjoyable,” they write. Among the reds they found the Syrah  wines hard to beat — some of the best Syrahs they have tasted anywhere — high praise. But the highest peak came from an unexpected source.

Our greatest discovery was the varietal called Emir.  We found it from several different producers in each area of Turkey where we stayed, most of the producers (or the fruit) located in the area we first stayed (Cappadocia—central Turkey).  This stony, flinty land produced this wonderful grape that is unlike anything I’ve tasted.  Think about a cross between a flinty sauvignon blanc from the Loire and a very dry viognier.  It had a light golden color and a very crisp finish.  Some lemony-apple notes, wonderful minerality, and pleasing to sip while it stood up well to fish and the ever-present smoky-roasted aubergine (which I had at every meal in Turkey).  This was a favorite wine we would drink anytime.  We found the same bottles to cost anywhere from about 15 Turkish Lire in the winery, to 30-90 in a restaurant (depending on the scale of the restaurant).  That’s a range of about $10 USD to $65.  We sometimes did not find it on the wine list, and started asking for it:  in all cases but one, they found a bottle in the back and presented it to us, and no matter who produced it, it was great.  It went beautifully with the bronzino in Ephesus and Istanbul, and was perfect with the stuffed zucchini flowers in Cappadocia.  Emir is king.

Indeed. And that’s part of Turkey’s problem. As the Oldest of the Old World countries, it has perhaps the richest treasury of native grape varieties. But who has heard of them, of King Emir and his court? Very few, I think, and this is problematic in a world where so many consumers are already confused by wine and have trouble mastering the basics.

The domestic market for wine in Turkey is relatively small and its international exports are limited. Belgium is its largest international customer according to a government report (Belgium?) followed by Northern Cyprus, Germany, Britain, the USA and Japan. A local search for Turkish wine uncovered a few bottles at a Mediterranean restaurant and not much else.  As the report says, there is much work to do for Turkey to realize its great wine potential.

More Than Margaritaville

“Baja — the New California?” was the title of Jancis Robinson’s review of Mexican wine after her visit to Baja California in 2010. “I am excited about the potential for wine in Mexico,” she said. And indeed some of her tasting notes are enough to make anyone excited. Here’s what she had to say about Union de Productores Textura 1 2007 (a blend of Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Grenache): “Deep crimson. Very sweet and dusty and ripe berried. Very Mexican. Very rich. Sweet spicy then nice dry finish. There’s a real beginning, middle and end to this wine. Good refreshing stuff on the finish.”

Very Mexican! I like that. Not a me-too wine. Not all the wines are big or sweet, of course, which is just as well. Lots of variety. Lots to look for and to like.

The biggest challenge? Climate, according to Jancis. Not enough rain. And, while I’m sure she is right in the long run, I think that infrastructure is probably an even bigger short term problem.

People who taste the wines of Mexico at wineries rave about their quality. But then when they order them in restaurants in the cities they are sometimes puzzled. Is this the wine I liked so well? I wonder what’s happened to it, they ask?

The answer, in many cases, is that Mexico’s transportation system of poor roads and long rides in hot trucks has baked the freshness out of the wine and left just a  hollow shell behind. Mexico can produce excellent wines, but it must also find ways to get them to market in good condition. This is a wine problem but of course it is much more than that.  It is a symptom of a general challenge to Mexico’s continued development.

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2 responses

  1. I totally agree about Baja’s challenges developing its export wine markets, and I am happy to see they are off to a good start with a signature blend (I wish it was a varietal) to “hang their hat” on. The same that Malbec does for Argentina.
    Sadly, I just read that more than 51% of Americans (Baja’s largest potential export market) have a negative impression of Mexico, which is not going to help Baja’s wineries hold a premium, unless California is an exception. Maybe the sweet spot is in a lower-priced, higher-volume approach. After all, several popular Mexican alc.bev. brands enjoy great success in the sunshine state.

  2. Nice article. I’d suggest one relatively minor correction. Cortes and the boys may have planted grapes in 1521 but they weren’t making wine yet. Would have had to wait 2 or 3 years for that.

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