Sunday, June 23, 2024

Sipping history: A journey through Aguascalientes wine country

As I wandered through rows of bushy green grape vines, whose perfect lines created a direct view towards a jagged spine of mountains in the distance, I had to pause to remember where I was. Fat clumps of purply-black grapes hung heavily from the branches. The faint sound of music echoed from the open-air patio of the winery’s main building — an industrial-chic, charcoal-colored structure with soaring ceilings and lovely views. Strings of Edison bulb lights dangled above rustic tables made out of wooden beams and barrels, while the earthy, wet smell of fermenting wine permeated throughout the dark, stony interior of the cave.

This wasn’t a hipster winery in Napa, nor was it even one in Valle de Guadalupe. This was Vinicola Santa Elena just outside Aguascalientes, Mexico — and it’s one of the main wineries helping to put Aguascalientes wine on the map.

Aguascalientes: North America’s next big wine region?

A map of Aguascalientes’ wine route. The state is home to a number of outstanding, but criminally underrated wineries. (Lugtur)

Among Mexico’s many indigenous beverages, its wines are growing in global recognition. Wine regions like Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California and Valle de Parras in Coahuila are among the most famous in the country. Valle de Guadalupe is considered one of the great international wine destinations. But wine production in Mexico extends across 14 states, and the wines of Aguascalientes deserve a seat at (or on) the table.

Aguascalientes’ wineries may not have the global recognition of those in Napa Valley or Bordeaux, but what they lack in fame, they make up for in charm and authenticity. Set against the backdrop of the region’s stunning landscapes, vineyards like Vinicola Santa Elena offer visitors a chance to wander through acres of meticulously tended vines while learning about the winemaking process from passionate experts.

Here, tradition is honored, with many wineries still employing age-old techniques passed down through generations. Yet, innovation is also embraced, as local vintners experiment with new grape varietals and winemaking methods. This gives a diverse array of wines that reflect both the region’s history and its future.

Aguascalientes, while one of the smallest states in Mexico, is the fifth-largest wine-producing region in the country. With an average elevation of more than 6,500 feet above sea level, it is also one of Mexico’s highest-elevation wine regions. The semi-dry climate makes Aguascalientes a prime region for growing popular grapes like Nebbiolo, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc. But Aguascalientes is known for many more varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Garnacha Blanca, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, and Tempranillo.

The wine tradition here dates back more than 400 years. It began with Catholic Monks fermenting wine for church ceremonies. For centuries after this, the wine region sat relatively quiet until the grape-growing resurgence in the early 20th century. Today, only 25 percent of the grapes in Aguascalientes turn into wine, so if you’re able to snag a bottle, you’re sipping something exclusive.

La ruta del vino

Fiestas de la Vendimia de la Ruta del Vino Aguascalientes

One of the best ways to explore the wine route of Aguascalientes is to literally follow its Ruta del Vino. Aguascalientes has more than 740 acres of vineyards, divided among 16 wineries. Along the route, visitors can pop into local cheese shops and tour the historic haciendas. 

The Ruta del Vino continues through the state visiting several other wineries, as well as farms and artisanal shops that offer products that pair perfectly with Aguascalientes wine. Goaty Cheeses, for example, is an artisanal cheese shop that opened in 2015 specializing in goat cheese. While visiting the shop, foodies will have the opportunity to taste cheeses and pick out the perfect cheese to pair with a bottle of wine. 

Fincas Cuatro Caminos is another special place to taste Aguascalientes. The estate is blanketed with thousands of olive trees and their main product is the artisanal Arturo Macias olive oil. 

Of course, the main reason to tour the Ruta del Vino is to sample the good stuff — the wine. Aguascalientes’ wine production, while small, is quickly gaining international attention. The state snagged eight medals in the Mexico Selection by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Guanajuato 2021 competition. Judges from Europe and the Americas came together for blind tastings and ultimately awarded two Grand Gold Medals, three Gold Medals, and three Silver Medals to the wines of Aguascalientes. Vinicola Santa Elena took home the Gold Medal in the 2023 Concours Mondial Bruxelles competition.

The perfect Mexican weekend break

A weekend in Aguascalientes wine country pairs perfectly with a trip to a luxury spa. Luckily there are several to choose from along the way. (Casa Legato Spa)

With so many stops along the Ruta del Vino, visitors can turn a wine-tasting weekend into a wellness journey. Several hotels within the region have opportunities to combine both wine and wellness. Casa Legato Spa Resort, for example, shows off 12 charming villas and the Tesoro de Agua Spa and Wellness Center. The spa has an impressive list of rituals, massages, and facials, including a Wine Antioxidant ritual. Think exfoliation with grape seed and a massage, followed by a wine-based mask and body wrap. The entire experience concludes with a tasting of house red paired with a cheese board.

Aguascalientes may not be the first destination that comes to mind when thinking of wine tourism, but it’s certainly one that deserves attention and a seat at the dinner table. 

Meagan Drillinger is a New York native who has spent the past 15 years traveling around and writing about Mexico. While she’s on the road for assignments most of the time, Puerto Vallarta is her home base. Follow her travels on Instagram at @drillinjourneys or through her blog at drillinjourneys.com.

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