Read my article for Vice on natural wine in Mexico here
It’s midday and I’m sitting in MeroToro restaurant in Mexico City, hearing Chilean (by way of Burgundy) winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt introduce the concept of natural wines to MeroToro’s enthusiastic waitstaff, including the wines he’s making in Tecate with Jair Téllez, MeroToro’s chef, at the Bichi winery.
Many of the waiters tell me they’d never drunk wine before they started working here. After all, as Luyt explains, “historically, there’s been no culture of drinking wine with food in Mexico.” Most Mexicans drink beer, mezcal, tequila, or aguas frescas to accompany meals. What little wine that was drunk in Mexico was quaffed in smart restaurants by rich people, and they would stick to the big, status-symbol labels from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Bordeaux—a far cry from anything that 99 percent of Mexicans could afford. Luyt compares the consumption of these Spanish and French wines to having an iPhone, or before that, wearing blue jeans—part of the mindless accumulation of uniform luxury products, totally devoid of individuality. Now, however, the Mexican wine industry is taking off, and expensive wines from Baja, California sit alongside big Rioja houses on the city’s wine lists. Sadly, however, they offer little respite, as the Mexican wine industry is dominated by a monopoly of omnipresent, industrial producers like Casa Madero, LA Cetto, and Santo Tomás, who have chosen to ape the commercial European and Napa Valley models rather than focus on reflecting Mexico’s exciting and unique terroir. The small producers don’t get a look in.
Luyt and Téllez are, however, mounting their own resistenza naturale (to borrow the title of Jonathan Nossiter’s 2014 wine documentary). They are not only Mexico’s only known natural wine producers, but they are also using the somewhat neglected oldest grape in the Americas: misión. It’s fairly certain that misión came over with the first conquistadores (the clue’s in the name), was tended to by friars, and eventually used not only as sacramental wine but also as an everyday table wine. Yet you mention the misión grape to most people in Europe or the Americas and they probably haven’t heard of it. It’s a deeply unfashionable, folkloric grape that you’ll find a smattering of in all sorts of wines, but it usually doesn’t even get a mention, let alone celebrated in a single-varietal bottling. In Chile, Luyt tells me, there are 400-year-old misión vines, and while they’ve yet to find any that old in Mexico, they are certainly lurking dormant somewhere, ready to be nurtured back to life to produce spectacular wine.
Back at MeroToro, the team dives into the latest Bichi samples—a delicious, wispy rosado called Rosa de Peru, made entirely of misión; a more gutsy, juicy nebbiolo with lovely acidity; and the new filthy (in the best possible way) white, La Gorda Blanca, made from the moscatel grape.
Luyt explains to MeroToro’s staff why the wines are different: They are a tiny production; they are low in sulfites and follow biodynamic methods that respect nature; they are made with wild yeasts and are considered “alive,” so they might have a bit of bottle variation. He says that the staff should encourage diners to at least try them, but not be pushy. He admits that if the client wants a bottle of very traditional, classical-style Ribera del Duero or Rioja, they probably aren’t going to be interested, but that if the client is “open,” it’s worth suggesting they try one from Bichi. The sample bottles are quickly finished and everyone seems excited to have them on the list. Two waiters lean over to tell me that they don’t like wine, but they like Bichi.
Bichi means “naked” in some parts of northern Mexico, and for Téllez and Luyt, it thus seemed like an appropriate name to give their new natural wine project based at the Téllez family ranch in Tecate, Baja, California. Making wine together seemed like the obvious thing to do: Téllez had encountered natural wines in Europe, became an instant convert, and was keen to start producing and importing them to Mexico. Luyt was one of Latin America’s experts in hunting down small grape growers in countries dominated by industrial winemakers, and helping them produce wines with minimal intervention. He’s quietly carved out a niche for himself in Chile as one of its only natural winemakers, and his wines now have a cult following.
At the end of this month, the pair will open their much-anticipated new restaurant, Amaya, in Mexico City’s Colonia Juarez. It’ll feature an entirely natural wine list (with imports as well as wines from Bichi and their Tecate Mancunian neighbor, Phil Gregory’s Vena Cava); simple food employing nose-to-tail butchery methods; and sustainable line-caught fish from Ensenada and Puerto Angel in Oaxaca.
The question is whether this “spark,” as Luyt calls it, will be enough to encourage other restaurants to put more natural wines on their menus in Mexico. For many, it’s too big a risk to stock these wines, as there isn’t enough of a customer base yet. Pablo Mata, sommelier at Pujol, explains, “At the moment, Mexico’s wine culture isn’t developed enough for people to understand the concept of natural wines…they are popular in Pujol, but above all with foreigners.” However, Mata is confident that “without doubt, the global natural wine movement will generate more diversity in Mexico [in wine].”
Luyt believes it’ll only be a matter of time. After all, chefs and diners in Mexico City go to great trouble sourcing extraordinary ingredients—it’s only natural that they will begin seeking out wines that evoke the same emotions and excitement landrace corn or endangered chiles do.