These ancient grapes may be the future of wine

Published January 4, 2023

20 min read

VALLE DE GUADALUPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICOAt first glance, the neat rows of wiry grapevines planted in a pinwheel at the Viñas del Tigre vineyard in Baja California don’t seem remarkable. But to Aldo Quesada, the grower and winemaker, the rows are a map to the future.

On one side of the pinwheel, tempranillo, merlot, granache, and other classic wine grapes look withered and anemic. Over the past few years they have been baked by unprecedented heat waves and parched by record-breaking drought—the brutal new normal climate conditions here at the southernmost tip of North America’s wine-growing range.

But one row looks different. Quesada’s misión grapes, descendants of the first grape varietal carried to North America by Spanish missionaries 500 years ago (and called “mission” in English), are not just surviving but thriving. Lush, palm-sized leaves flutter in the salty sea breeze. Grapes left on the vine after the recent harvest are still plump and sweet. 

“This is an absolutely amazing grape, really really strong,” says Quesada. And because of that vigor, they’re a key part of his and other local winemakers’ plans to make wine in an even more climate-changed future.

The mission of misión

Quesada is young—in his early 30s, and relatively green in the wine world—but the vines he’s working with are very, very old.

Mission grapes evolved in the high, dry steppes of central Spain’s Castilla la Mancha region and were grown in Spanish missions. Hardy, drought tolerant, and vigorous growers, they were a natural choice to load onto Spanish explorers’ ships headed to the New World in the early 1500s.

The explorers were not about to leave beloved wine and wine grapes behind. Wine played a critical part in Catholic ceremony and was often consumed instead of water, making up a hefty part of daily calories. So just a few years after Hernan Cortez’s ships arrived in Mexico in 1522, he decreed that 1,000 vines should be planted for each 100 people in Spanish-colonized settlements. By 1531, ships arriving from Spain were required to deliver grapevines, wines, and olives.

“The colonizers were far from dumb,” says Jaime Palafox, the owner of Palafox Wines, based in Baja (and the maker of an excellent mission rosé). “They brought the strongest grapes they could find.”

The grapes, from the genus Vitus vinifera, landed in Florida, Cuba, and mainland Mexico. But it wasn’t until the early 1700s, when Jesuit priests set up a trail of missions along the coast of Baja California in the wake of the earlier explorers, that Spaniards found wine-making heaven. In the sun-drenched valleys cooled by coastal fog, fed with water coursing out of the low snow-capturing sierras to the east, the mission grapes thrived, quickly establishing the Baja missions as the beating heart of wine production along the West Coast of North America.

The padres took grape growing seriously: They wanted to make enough wine to drink themselves and use for Mass—but also to sell. From their abundant mission harvest they made sacramental wines, sweet white wines, a few different kinds of reds, and a distilled brandy-like concoction called aguardiente. But it wasn’t until Mexican independence, in 1821, that production started to ramp up; seeking to unlink themselves from Spanish imported wine, leaders in the newly formed country called on locals to produce more of their own.

The first commercial winery, Bodegas Santo Tomas, opened in 1888, selling white and red wines, as well as muscatel and port. Within decades, more opened—providing plenty of booze to the region and even to bootleggers coming from the United States during Prohibition.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the region started to develop in earnest, and a handful of producers made most of the region’s wines. But within the last decade the winemaking scene here has exploded. In 2014 there were about 60 winemakers in the Valle de Guadalupe, about two hours from San Diego; today, there are at least 170. Now, about 70 percent of all wine made in Mexico is from Baja.

“The project is, how to develop the vineyards of the future,” says Camilo Magoni, a winemaker in the region for more than 50 years, “and not make mistakes that we will give to our children.”

Climate struggles

“We’re in a giant experiment of climate change and wine,” says Cesar Valenzuela, a scientist with Mexico’s National Institute of Research for Forests, Agriculture, and Livestock. He published an alarming set of studies in 2014 and 2018 showing the long-term climate risks to Baja’s wine industry, “and we’re in the moment of seeing what we predicted come true.”

Baja is wracked by the same “megadrought” that has gripped the U.S. Southwest since 2000, the intensity of which is unmatched in at least 1,200 years. Extreme heat, extreme weather—like a recent hurricane that swept the region—and big shifts in expected rain and snow patterns have put harvest after harvest at risk.

“There hasn’t been what I would call a ‘normal’ year since 2010,” says Palafox.

Tonio Baro, the viticulturist at Bodegas Santo Tomas, thinks the climactic changes kicked in as early as the late 1980s. Now, the even more intense summer heat is ripening the grapes sooner and he routinely harvests three weeks earlier than when he started his job more than 40 years ago.

But winemakers and farmers are the quintessential troubleshooters; they know how to make the best of a rotten season. During the four heat waves this summer, for example, Santo Tomas’s winemaker Cristina Pino stayed in constant communication with Tonio, tracking the grapes’ sugar and acid levels and gaming out her enological responses—when to pick, how she’d blend different grapes to adjust for flavors, and so on.

The heat waves caused the grapes to ripen too quickly, pushing harvest up about 20 days. A shorter, hotter time on the vine tilts the grapes’ flavor profile: When the sugar content is right for picking, the flavor-making phenols haven’t necessarily had enough time to develop, upping the difficulty of producing an excellent wine. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, Pino says, but it definitely makes it trickier to balance the wine correctly.

In Santo Tomas’s four-story facility, a round tower perched on the tallest hill in the valley, Pino opens a valve on a 5,000-liter tank and splashes grape juice into a wineglass. She sips, swishing it forcefully in her mouth. Just pressed from this summer’s mission grapes, it hasn’t finished fermenting, so it’s still a little sweet with a red berry nose. “You can taste the heat,” she says.

Skilled winemakers like Pino can handle the challenges of making wine from overheated grapes. What they can’t handle indefinitely is the falta de agua—drought.

“With too much heat, it’s hard. But with no water, there are no grapes,” says Magoni. “That is problem number one for us now.”

Unlike California’s winegrowing regions, which receive water from more precipitation-rich parts of the state, the Baja peninsula—part of Mexico—has access to essentially no source of water outside its bounds. So growers rely on winter snows in nearby mountains to fill streams and rivers, and on groundwater pumped from below.

Both have dwindled alarmingly. Precipitation patterns are changing, says Teresa Cavazos, a climate scientist at the Autonomous University of Baja. Overall, less water is falling from the sky. When it does arrive, it’s in shorter, more intense bursts and at different times of year than historically—less reliably in the winter, but sometimes now in unexpected summer storms. The classic El Niño and La Niña weather patterns are becoming less predictable—a big problem for growers who need to plan for next year’s water needs.

“The hardest thing since 2010 is the uncertainty; you can’t plan the same as before,” she says.

That puts even more pressure on the groundwater, which provides on average about 60 percent of all the water used for agriculture in the valley; in dry years, that can spike. At last measure in 2020, people were pumping about twice as much out of the aquifer each year as was going back in—too many straws sucking from the same emptying glass. Many wells in the valley are already running dry.

And the demand is growing. Wine tourism in the region is booming; nearly every dusty road crisscrossing the Valle de Guadalupe is dotted with in-construction new hotels and guest houses and wine tasting rooms—and tourists want showers, hot tubs, and plenty of wine.

The return of the classic

 Old-timers and newcomers alike are clear-eyed: There’s no escaping the Valle’s water and climate problems, nor any easy solution.

Some, like Magoni, have ripped out whole vineyards of less-popular varietals to save water, directing it to more beloved or profitable grapes. He and others are also advocating for a new source of water—either a desalination plant offshore that would pump water up to the valley, or a pipe carrying thoroughly treated wastewater from Tijuana, 75 miles north (the pipe plan has support from the governmental state but is mired in logistics and controversy).

Others come at the problem differently. At Vinas del Tigre, Quesada has terraformed his little uber-organic rancho in a tributary of the Valle de Guadalupe and less than a mile from the coast, into a water-retaining haven. A stream cuts through the property and thick fog wafts over most days. He built swales and planted willows, whose roots slow any water that flows through the riverbed, and dotted around native oaks and other tall native species to capture fog and drip it to the soil below. The herd of goats that roams the property don’t help capture water, but they add entertainment, he says.

And perhaps more importantly, he, like some other creative winemakers across the region, are turning to the past: to misión.

 Aldo didn’t expect to see such a pronounced difference in his experimental vineyard, but it was striking. This year, for example, he watered his few rows of tempranillo grapes twice a week for five months; after all that they produced just a few anemic bunches. The mission? He watered them only five times all year and still had plenty to fill a whole wooden press.

On a hundred-degree day in September, he suctions some opaque fuchsia mission juice, mid-fermentation, out of a huge glass jug and into a glass. He swirls it in his mouth and prounounces it still sweet, not very acidic, with a swish of cherry. He’ll balance it in his red wine blend with some higher-acid grapes and then will stop fiddling with it, in the custom of natural winemakers. Aldo savors the idea that the wine will express this exact year, this exact combination of drought and heat and optimism despite the mad rush to harvest before the grapes turned to raisins on the vine.

“This is the theme of climate change. We have to learn to use less or make more things with the same amount,” he says, which is exactly what mission lets him do. With less water, he could get a few bunches of tempranillo or a whole press of misión.

A few minutes away, another young winemaker is also going in hard on mission grapes. Silvana Pijoan, who is managing her family’s winemaking production and vineyard, took out a whole hillside of old, underperforming vines and replaced it with mission. Considering the ever-intensifying climate and water pressures, “it’s definitively the direction we should go,” she says.

Pijoan and others are plugged into a growing group of young winemakers curious to try wines made from this grape with such history, with a unique profile and flavor and adaptation to the difficult present and more difficult climate-changed future.

Bichi, the first winery to focus on natural wines in Mexico, is based about 40 miles away from the valley in the boulder-studded valleys of Tecate. When they started in 2014, nearly all Baja producers were making traditional European-style wines, says Noel Tellez, Bichi’s winemaker and one of the owners. Bichi preferred to experiment, making sometimes-strange wines that expressed the uniqueness of each specific vineyard in which the grapes were grown. Their creative, intensely localized wines made waves, ushering in a whole new generation of people in Mexico, the U.S., and beyond interested in Mexican wines, says Tellez.

“In many ways I think we helped to open up people’s ideas of what wine could be,” he says—and he thinks that openness could help the region adapt. “Why not value the things that work here, that thrive here in Mexican terroir?

Bichi also makes a mission wine—though they call theirs listán prieto, a nod to the grape’s peripatetic history: Geneticists recently figured out the grape known in Spain as listán prieto, país in Chile, criolla chica in Argentina, and misión in Mexico are all actually the same plant. Bichi’s version comes from 80-year-old vines grown in the traditional “goblet” style, each standing alone like a squat, six-foot-tall tree—another historical adaptation that could help today’s grapes, says Tellez, since the spreading canopy helps shade the grapes from the over-intense sun. It certainly seems to be working: Even without a drop of irrigation, the wide field glows lush in the hot autumn sun.

And the wine tastes great. Light bodied, gently fruity, and slightly herbal, it encapsulates Baja’s past, present, and climate-changed future.

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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