A state with much history that is just starting to revive its quality wine production…
Above all, the history and current state of viticulture in the state of Aguascalientes is characterized by the importance of grape production for purposes other than wine production, including table grapes, raisins and most important of all, brandy. This has been the historical tendency as well as still continues today, although a few producers are making a bold move to offer premium wine production in an industry characterized by grape juice and low-quality mass-produced wine.
Today, only approximately 25% of the grapes harvested in the state go to wine production. In addition, of those wines produced, many are of poor quality, which means that only a very small proportion of the viticulture in Aguascalientes goes toward premium quality wines, although the latter do exist.
Climate and Geography
Aguascalientes is characterized by its altitude, with viticulture generally taking place in regions between latitudes of 1,700 to 2,400 m. The state is located on the central plateau of Mexico, which is delimited by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the east, to look at the big picture. Much of the viticulture intended for wine production takes place in the Central Valley to the north of the capital city of Aguascalientes. The soil in the state is characterized by the presence of soluble salts as well as a low density of organic material.
Aguascalientes generally receives the largest amount of rainfall during summer months, and as an annual average, receives between 500 and 600 mm of rain depending on the location in the state. This summertime rain can damage the harvest, and the fact that it is also inconsistent means that droughts can also be a problem. Overall, the climate is semiarid with an average annual temperature of 18°C, although certain regions can be markedly cooler due to their altitude. Another climactic factor is hail, which on average occurs between 0 and 2 days annually in the majority of the regions of the state. Because of this, certain grape producers cover their vines with nets.
As is clear, all of these factors make high-quality viticulture a challenge by all means. In addition, it is also interesting to note that the entire state of Aguascalientes lies to the south of the latitudes considered appropriate for viticulture.
The history of viticulture in Aguascalientes goes back to the time of the conquest. Wine was first planted in the area of what is now the capital city of Aguascalientes in 1575 by monks for religious wine production. Multi-purpose grape production in the area grew over the following centuries, and in 1790, Aguascalientes was second overall in grape production in the country behind Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila with over 300,000 individual plants in existence, although it must be noted that only a very small portion of this was dedicated to producing wine.
Over the past century, viticulture in Aguascalientes has seen dramatic ups and downs. Growth in the industry started in 1947, when Secretary of Agriculture Nazario Ortiz Garza, following experience working in the industry in Coahuila, established Viñedos Ribier, which came to be the largest producer in the state by 1954. Shortly afterwards, the first state association of viticulture as was formed, and the first factory dedicated to the industry was set up in 1949. In the 1950s, this transition continued, with production shifting from small-scale family-based production to a larger industrial level, focused in particular on distilled beverages, although also producing jug wine.
Unfortunately, this was all to decline during the late 1980s and 1990s in particular. At its peak, Aguascalientes produced more than 160,000 annual tons of grapes, with 12,000 to 12,500 hectares planted for grape production. In 1982, it was second in national grape production. Nowadays, it is only home to 1,100 hectares of vineyards, even despite growth in the recent years.
Why this decline? Different sources indicate different reasons for the decline, but it is clear that a combination of both macroeconomic, regulatory and agricultural factors contributed to this. On one hand, Mexico’s entrance into the GATT in 1986 removed trade barriers and levies for imports of distilled products and table grapes from other countries with higher subsidies and more beneficial growing conditions, which competed with the products of Mexican viticulture, which was no longer able to compete in terms of pricing. In addition, lack of expertise and inappropriate farming practices led to the proliferation of disease, thus further reducing profitability. To top it all off, in the mid-80s, the Mexican government introduced the IEPS tax (Impuesto especial sobre producción y servicios), which led to a drastic increase in the selling price of grape-based alcoholic products, with a 60% tax surcharge plus sales tax, hammering the nail into the coffin of viticulture in Aguascalientes. In addition, the recession at the time also led producers to uproot significant hectares of vitis vinifera to plant crops that could more easily be sold on the local market and thus produce liquid assets for them at a time when capital was scarce.
An example of this decline can quite easily be seen in the activities of mass-scale Mexican grape and related-products producer Pedro Domecq. Domecq chose Aguascalientes in 1958 as the location where it farmed 2,000 hectares of vitis vinifera plants for the production of grape-based distilled products such as brandy and vermouth, among other products. However, with the decline of the industry the state, it abandoned its production in Aguascalientes, despite the fact that today it has multiple facilities across multiple Mexican states. It is worth noting that Domecq never produced wine specifically made from grapes grown in Aguascalientes, as its wine production is focused in Baja California.
Wine Production in Aguascalientes Today
Today, wine production in Aguascalientes is greatly overshadowed by the production of other grape products. The state is fourth overall in terms of grape production in the country with 1,100 hectares planted (2016 data), although the area of grapes planted for wine production is significantly smaller at 140 ha (2013 data), putting it in fifth place in wine production on the national level, behind Baja California, Coahuila, Querétaro and Chihuahua.
Certain producers focus on mass production, such as La Bordolesa, owner of Viñedos Ríos and Casa Leal, which produces red and white wines as well as brandy and a grape must product called Mega Uva that is marketed as a health supplement. Also, Vinícola Valle Redondo, owned by the Cetto Group, is known for producing Vino California, a jug wine that is also the most sold wine in Mexico, sold in tetra packs and 4L glass jugs, as well as other juices and concentrates.
In terms of quality-focused wine production, the most noteworthy producer in the state is Santa Elena as well as its counterpart Bodegas Origen. The former was founded in 2006 followed by planting over the following decade, and the vineyard is now established is a quality producer, despite the fact that it continues to build and expand infrastructure at the winery. Of particular note is its Nebbiolo, which is made from cuttings brought from Piedmont, which sets it apart from many other examples of Mexican Nebbiolo, which are produced from cuttings from the Guadalupe Valley, which produce a very different style. It also produces Malbec and Syrah, although planting and experimentation continues. It is located in the Central Valley of the state at approximately 2000 meters altitude.
Previously, Hacienda de Letras was also a serious producer in the area, but since a change in management (ownership?), it has ceased to vinify its own wines, instead shipping its grapes to undergo the process elsewhere, and the result has been a selection of sugar-sweetened red and white “wine” beverages that do not have the profile for it to be considered a serious wine producer.
Overall, production of premium wines in the state of Aguascalientes is still very much lacking today. While the wine industry is starting to be revived by certain government initiatives following its drastic decline, it remains that the large majority of this production is not dedicated to wine, and even less so to the production of premium wine, with the notable exception of Santa Elena. What we have in this state is above all a producer of juice and low-quality wine, and so long as it remains like this, it is likely that the state will remain behind the competition constituted by other Mexican states, both in terms of national and international acknowledgment. While certain producers are making an effort to put the state on the map in terms of quality wine production, they remain a minority which is likely to face many challenges in gaining acknowledgment for their products given the type of production characteristic of the wine industry in the area and the stark competition constituted by other premium producer states.
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