Mexico, at the southern tip of the North American continent, might seem like an unlikely wine producing nation, but viniculture has been practiced here for longer than anywhere else in the Americas. The Parras Valley's Casa Madero winery, founded in 1597, prides itself on being la vinicola mas antigua de America ('the oldest winery in America'). At this point in history, Bordeaux's Medoc was still an undrained marsh. It was from here that viticulture spread northwards to California and then southwards, notably to Chile and Argentina.
The Vitis vinifera vine and the concept of winemaking came to Mexico with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Before the colony's own wine production could satisfy local demand, wine was imported from Spanish vineyards, maintaining a healthy flow of ships and trade between Spain and Nueva Espana ('New Spain', as Mexico was known at that time). So valued was this trade that the Spanish King, King Carlos II, outlawed commercial wine production so that it would continue.
Local wine production was sanctioned only for ceremonial purposes, but it was this legal exception that sustained a tiny Mexican wine industry until the early 19th century, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Beer, tequila and mezcal remain more popular than wine in modern Mexico, but wine consumption is increasing steadily.
The earliest Mexican vineyards were planted around the town of Parras de la Fuente which translates as 'vineyards of the spring'. While located in the semi-desert state of Coahuila, they were safely tucked away in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains.
The wine regions of modern Mexico are now located in the slightly cooler, ocean-moderated climate of north-western Baja California, a long way west of the original vine-growing areas. Ninety percent of Mexican wine is now made at the northern edge of the long, thin, Baja California peninsula, in the valleys of Guadalupe, Calafia, Santo Tomas, San Vicente and San Antonio de las Minas.
Because of the hot, sunny climate here, irrigation is needed in almost all locations; most Mexican vineyards lie on a similar latitude to the deserts of Iraq and the northern Sahara. Rainfall is low, with the driest areas sometimes receiving only eight inches (200mm) annually. All but the north-westernmost corner of Baja California is classified as Warm Arid Desert on the Koppen Climate Classification scale; viticulture is made possible by the presence of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of California to the east.
There are no vinifera varieties indigenous to the Americas, so Mexican wine is made from the 'international' varieties of French, Spanish and Italian descent. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown here, as is Zinfandel, the icon grape of the USA. They are complemented by white wines made predominantly from Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and the ubiquitous Chardonnay.