This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
César Fernando Aguayo Juárez, the town historian of Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, tells a story from the heady final days of his country’s colonial period that has the preternatural weight of history about to be repeated.
At a meeting of insurrectionary plotters, Miguel Hidalgo, a future founding father, then the parish priest of the rural outpost known at the time as just Dolores, served wine made from his own crop of grapes.
Raising her glass to accept a third pour, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, a chief co-conspirator, was chastised by her husband: “Come on, woman, don't drink anymore. You already have the character of gunpowder.”
“Oh let me be,” she replied. “These wines that Father Hidalgo makes in Dolores are just as good as the French ones.”
More than 200 years later, the testimony to the quality of the wine made in the region is beginning to echo, as a resurgence of viniculture led by a new mold-breaking crew gains acclaim and attention.
With a signature freshness, wines from the state of Guanajuato have gone toe to toe with their European counterparts in international competition. Industry insiders, like Wine Enthusiast magazine, have celebrated the “revolution” afoot there.
Aguayo Juárez calls it a “a retrospective reclaiming of history and the detonation of a new industry.”
Set in the country’s central highlands a few hours’ drive from Mexico City, the area’s exceptional altitude averaging 6,500 feet above sea level ensures a unique growing climate.
Strong evening suns are tough on the grapes, driving up the concentration of sugar for fermentation. A rainy summer season balances their maturation.
“They’re wines with a brutality and a unique aroma,” said Erika Diaz, a sommelier who coordinates a regional festival and guides tours through her Club de Vino. “When you open a bottle of wine from Guanajuato, you know it’s from Guanajuato because it’s a wine with its own personality.”
More than 40 wine producers now dot the state
At Cuna de Tierra, outside of Dolores Hidalgo, sommelier Gael Velazquez notes white truffle and white peppers in the vineyard’s premium label, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles gold medal-winning red blend Pago de Vega.
In this first vineyard in the area’s new wave, 27 varieties now wrap around wires and wooden trestles that stretch over the nearly 300-acre ranch, a sprawling green campus crossed by dirt paths reddened with clay.
Adobe from the soil there is mixed with concrete to form adocreto, a material used to construct the striking, modern Pueblo buildings that house the winery’s production facilities and restaurant. Cool to the touch, the adocreto provides a natural insulation, allowing for an unusual above-ground cellar lined with rows of impressive oak barrels—a highlight of a tour that’s attracting greater numbers of Mexicans and Americans each year.
More than 40 wine producers now dot the state, with many near the historic town of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende, a neighboring colonial gem and haven for expats.
Off the highway between the two towns, the stately Tres Raices, opened to the public in 2018, offers tastings and tours of a program led by a Mendoza-trained enologist.
Lavender bushes mingle with rows of grapevines at Viñedo los Arcangeles farther to the north. There, cabanas for rent and touches of hospitality, like a nightly bonfire, offer a rustic respite after a day of touring.
While wine is far from a favorite for Mexican drinkers, and the Valle de Guadalupe, a coastal wine region by the California border, remains the country’s most influential, the Guanajuato offerings are becoming more popular, boosted in part by a tourism campaign launched this summer that highlights winemaking’s ties to the country’s history.
On the Wine Route of Independence tour, a chauffeured day of wine tasting comes with stops to take in local handicrafts and a visit to the Museum of Wine in Dolores Hidalgo, a dazzlingly tiled center that details the little known role played by the grape in the Mexican fight for independence.
Hidalgo, a “humanist priest,” first introduced wine production in the region after taking over the Dolores parish in 1803.
The loamy and sandy soil was ideal for grape growing, and vineyards, Hidalgo thought, could be an effective commercial opportunity for the indigenous communities, which had been left sickened and enslaved by the colonial leadership.
But strict mercantilist policies, in place to protect the Spanish crown’s exports, barred most production of wine in the colony. Hidalgo’s orchards in the center of town, which took up the length of a city block, were burned to the ground.
The episode, among the mounting examples of Spanish oppression, further fueled Hidalgo’s drive to revolt.
In the early hours of Sept. 16, 1810, with his conspiracy said to have been uncovered, Hidalgo rang the bell of his church on the town’s main plaza to summon his parishioners. The “Grito,” or cry, he delivered, is remembered as the call to arms that would lead, over a decade later, to a liberated Mexican state.
Political leaders across the country reenact the speech each September in dramatic fashion to mark Mexico’s Independence Day, the president of Mexico doing so from the balcony of the National Palace and with Hidalgo’s same bell.
A no-frills pueblo for most of the year, over the holiday, Dolores Hidalgo transforms into the site of a patriotic pilgrimage, with thousands gathered to celebrate in the town where the break from Spain first began.
Lights and bunting are strung from the roofs of the low-rise buildings and oversized neon signs with nationalistic imagery glow in the tricolor of the Mexican flag on the main plaza.
By nightfall, street vendors have extended their stalls into the streets themselves, popping up plastic tables and griddles with basins for frying quesadillas. The drinks of choice here are decidedly unpretentious: tamarind and hibiscus waters and domestic beers.
If Dolores Hidalgo itself is still more of a Modelo town, down the highway in San Miguel de Allende, the wine takeover is well underway.
Named for Ignacio Allende, an early collaborator of Hidalgo’s and his eventual successor at the helm of the revolutionary army, San Miguel de Allende’s independent streak has propelled it to global renown.
In 2021, Travel + Leisure readers named it the world’s best city. They did the same in 2017 and 2018.
Reimagined as an artist colony a century ago, San Miguel de Allende’s worn cobblestones and color-blocked buildings have provided inspiration for greats like David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist who taught in the city’s art academy in his later years.
Thousands of retirees from the U.S., Canada, and Europe have since moved in, building their bohemian tastes into the city’s famous hills.
A shocking set of natural wines
Tucked away on a downtown backstreet, Marcelo Castro Vera serves up radical pours in his Tenerías 2 tasting room like a winemaking insurgent, though with his curly mop and signature Birkenstocks he says he’s more often mistaken for a shaman.
Sold under the label Octagano, the wines are produced by carefully avoiding any industrial technique. Grapes are crushed by foot and never filtered or treated with sulfites. Clay pots, buried in the ancient style of eastern European winemakers, replace traditional fermentation tanks.
The result: a shocking set of natural wines that escape the bounds and profile of traditional vineyards.
“That’s kind of what we’re trying to break,” Castro said, “the cellar with a ton of barrels that people go to to pose.”
Over a two-hour seating, available by private booking, more than a dozen bottles amassed on a large, shared table alongside an unorthodox spread that included kimchi and grasshoppers.
There’s a white with milky notes meant to evoke pulque, an ancient sappy booze. An orange, fermented with the grape skin left on for up to eight months, lands with tang that forces eyebrows up.
Guanajuato, Castro says, has the highest concentration of natural winemakers in the country, and at Xoler, a new wine bar in San Miguel de Allende, the full range is on display.
A cool orange wine from Cava Garambullo, a natural winery outside of town, is served next to sopes, thick disks of fried masa, elevated on a special Independence Day menu with spherified onions and slow roasted pork.
In a second course, the standard steak and red is flipped for salpicon and a natural Syrah-Cabernet Franc blend, the shredded beef’s sauce finding its match in the tartness of the wine.
“We really like to combine natural wines with Mexican food,” said Agustin Solórzano, Xoler’s owner, calling pét-nat, a natural sparkling wine, an especially good match for dishes heavy on chiles.
“They’re a little dry but they have aromas, they’re very fruity, and they work marvelously with spicy food like a ceviche or a mole,” he said.
Back in Dolores Hidalgo on the night of the “Grito,” as national hymns rouse a swelling crowd, a select few are toasting with local reds at Damonica restaurant, perhaps an unwitting tribute to the nation’s birth.
The rare upscale spot in town, Damonica has a wide selection of Guanajuato wines, showcasing the newest and the finest from the burgeoning scene, alongside cuts and risottos.
Monica Dimitri, who owned a restaurant in her native Italy before opening Damonica five years ago, is in the early stages of a coup of her own.
“I want to change a bit the culture of tequila and everything,” she said, serving a reporter a dry local red, “and have people get a little closer to wine.”