The wine harvest is about timing. The time it takes for a grape to ripen to optimal sweetness, the moment they are cut from the vine, the days or weeks that each mix of crushed grapes and juice sits in fermentation tanks or oak barrels. Timing is everything and to get it right, you not only have to be obsessed with accuracy, but also have a passion for perfection. Alejandra Cordero, the winemaker at Tres Raices, a winery in Dolores Hildago, located in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, has both.
Wearing a black lab coat, her hair in a tight bun and her hands stained ruddy red with wine, Cordero is testing the sugar levels of the latest batch of Tres Raices wine. This year’s harvest went fast. There was little summer rain and the grapes matured quickly. They started cutting in July and were finished by the start of September. Timing was vital.
“Sometimes it’s like, tomorrow it’s going to rain, and the fruit is ready, but the sugar level is below what you want, so you ask yourself, should I cut it? Should I wait?” Cordero explains, “If the grapes are harvested at the right moment you don’t have to make a lot of manual adjustments to the wine along the way, which is what I prefer, to leave the wine be.”
She’s extremely methodical; her notebook is filled with dates and times yeast was added, when and for how long the liquid in the fermentation tanks is to be recirculated with the grape solids to bring out additional colors and aromas.
And beyond the science, there are her personal numbers. Not even 30 years old, Cordero, who originally hails from Chihuahua and first became hooked on winemaking and all its challenges while studying biochemistry in university, is already turning heads in Mexico’s Bajio winemaking region.
While not necessarily a heavyweight on the world wine stage, Mexico has a growing reputation as a wine producer and boasts numerous winemaking regions. Perhaps best known is Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe. With its warm, dry summers and misty ocean breezes creating a delicious microclimate for grape growing, the valley has over 100 wineries that in the past 20 years have been producing some of the most exceptional wine in the country.
But wine is made all over Mexico, and the region that is home to Tres Raices, el Bajio, was one of the first places that Spanish missionaries planted vines and started making wine (Mexico’s famous father of Independence, Miguel Hidalgo, among them). While the rebirth of this area as a wine-producing region has only really been in the last decade or so, there is a deep and reverent passion towards wine in this part of Mexico’s heartland.
Cordero has spent all nine of her years as a winemaker in this part of the country. Three years ago, she was recruited to help launch Tres Raices (“Three Roots”), a new winery opened by three business partners who wanted to set down roots, quite literally, for their children’s future.
The time she invests and her state of mind have an undeniable effect on the final product. Last year there were wines she worked on under pressure, with directives she didn’t exactly agree with, and the resulting taste told that story.
“I’d taste them and think, ‘Oh, what I didn’t want to come out, came out.’ That’s the day I came in angry,” she jokes.
“It’s a day-to-day thing, to learn what you liked and didn’t like, to grow and improve for next year.”
In contrast, this year she’s had more freedom, leveraging the trust built up over various harvests and the popularity of her wine on the market; it helps that she has a solid team at her side. Most importantly, she trusts herself more, having put in the time necessary to know these grapes, this land, even these tanks and these buildings. She sees it in this year’s sauvignon blanc, believing its expressiveness is partly due to her own.
“Wine is a living thing and you are constantly transmitting energy to it,” she says.
It matters little that this is the day of Tres Raices’ first vendimia (harvest) celebration and 1,000 guests are scheduled to arrive shortly – Cordero’s top priority is, and always will be, the wine. She’s been here since 5 a.m., overseeing the tanks. As staffers mill about setting up cream-colored tents and signs directing guests around the property, Cordero is zeroed in on whether the rosé is advancing properly.
Each year poses its difficulties and its rewards. Even though the small vineyard is working to expand its vines, at the moment it still needs grapes from other farms to complement its harvest. In the first few weeks of this year’s fermentation, truckloads of grapes were arriving from the state of Chihuahua when the vineyard’s electrical system malfunctioned. There was wine already in tanks and Cordero knew that if she couldn’t keep it cool it would be wasted. By 2 a.m., temperatures had dropped to a dangerous level. So she invented a solution – filling metal tubes with ice and inserting them into the fermentation tanks – and slept in a sleeping bag overnight in the production room along with several workers, refilling the ice and monitoring temperatures. Nothing was lost.
“There are a lot of things this year that made me happy,” she says, “I have learned from my mistakes, the vineyard has grown a lot, and we have made changes for the better. There were varieties that we thought were doing fine but then discovered that they needed more. It’s a day-to-day thing, to learn what you liked and didn’t like, to grow and improve for next year.”
On the menu at today’s celebration is a crisp sauvignon blanc from 2018, with just a hint of roasted coffee at the first sniff. Also being passed around is an easy-going red blend from 2017, fruity and light. Both flow freely as guests begin to arrive and the grounds of Tres Raices become a sea of white summer dresses and panama hats. One thousand people drink till they are tipsy and happy, listening to Mariachi music, crushing table grapes in an old-fashioned barrel, and sampling the picnic fare created by the vineyard’s restaurant – paella, tacos, hamburgers, pasta salads.
As people saunter through the vines, they have little idea of the time that went in to the delicious wine they hold in their hands. Guests snap selfies amongst grape leaves that are starting to burn crimson around the edges. The party continues, but the vines have done their work for this year and now it’s time to rest.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.