For a long time, fine dining in Mexico City meant fancy French restaurants. Restaurateurs would import big names from Europe for bumper fees; French wines became synonymous with good (and expensive) taste. But the local dining scene is undergoing steady change. Some of Mexico City’s most exciting restaurants are its cocina de autor, eateries owned and driven by Mexican chefs who trained overseas and returned to Mexico City with energy and new ideas.
UNESCO inscribed Mexico’s culinary heritage alongside that of France as the world’s only two gourmet “cultural treasures” in 2010. Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, who oversees the Azul restaurants, has been an important figure in upholding these centuries-old treasures, compiling detailed encyclopedias of Mexican cuisine. Other chefs, however, are turning away from tradition, incorporating knowledge and techniques they’ve perfected in acclaimed kitchens in places like London, New York, and Tokyo to showcase Mexico’s abundant produce in their own style. Even though Mexican people will say it’s not Mexican cuisine—you definitely wouldn’t find these dishes listed in one of Zurita’s volumes—it is food for Mexican people, cooked in Mexico City by Mexican chefs using Mexican ingredients.
Chefs like Eduardo García and Elena Reygadas are among those introducing this new style. García, who worked in the US for 27 years before being deported, opened Maximo Bistrot with his wife Gabriela in 2011 to showcase seasonal ingredients sourced from Mexico City and the surrounding countryside. Chef Reygadas honed her craft in London before returning to Mexico, where she began by throwing successful pop-up dinners in an empty house before opening Rosetta in 2010. She has since expanded her restaurant group, adding two outlets of her standout bakery Panadería Rosetta and sharing-plate eatery Lardo.
With a growing number of sophisticated restaurants and international visitors constantly passing through, demand for wine professionals in Mexico City is increasing. While wine pairing menus still aren’t common due to prohibitively high import taxes (66% and up) resulting in hard-to-swallow pricing, more diners are asking for a selection or two to enjoy during the course of the meal. Presently, a relatively small number of sommeliers work the floor in Mexico City, especially considering the number of restaurants. GuildSomm member Johan Manuel Valderrabano, who oversees the list at Rosetta and runs his own wine import company, estimates that only 15 restaurants out of over 1,000 in the capital have at least one professional sommelier on staff (many others hold the title but without knowledge or experience).
While there are several sommelier communities operating in Mexico City, there has been little in the way of cooperation or structured professional development. Frustrated with the lack of support, and understanding how difficult it is for Mexico-based somms to travel for training and work, Valderrabano assisted with the organization of the Court of Master Sommeliers program in Mexico City starting in 2014. He has encouraged over 150 F&B professionals daunted by language barriers and the complexities of the business to pursue certification. Valderrabano says around 30 students are currently shooting for the Master Sommelier pin.
Thanks to chefs and somms at the forefront of Mexico City’s scene, local enthusiasm for wine and its associated careers is spreading. More restaurant staff, from waiters to capitanes, the local equivalent of a maître d', are interested in learning about wine, and more talented individuals are training to be somms than ever before.
- Gemma Price, Travel Writer
Featured here are Johan Valderrabano, who leads the team at Rosetta; Gerardo Tellez, a sommelier at Básicos Gourmet who will sit the MS exam for the sixth time next March; Sandra Fernandez, owner of SFG Estrategias Integrales en Vinos y Destilados SA de CV, a company that offers public relations, strategy consultancy, and activation services to wine and spirit brands; Edwin Jasso Chavez, sommelier at LIPP La Brasserie; and Luis Morones, sommelier at InterContinental Presidente Mexico City Hotel.
How has the food and wine scene in Mexico City changed over the last five to ten years?
Johan: Right now, it’s all happening! I’ve worked in Mexico City for 12 years. When I began my career, there were only one or two hotels and maybe two or three restaurants in which you could work as a sommelier. In the past five years, many chefs have left and returned, and many [international] chefs have come to Mexico. Now is the best time in Mexico’s history for fine dining and expensive restaurants and tourism to the city.
Edwin: Things have changed significantly. Ten years ago, there was an increase in the consumption of wine, with the middle class preferring cheaper, easy-drinking wines and the political and business class people only drinking cult French and highly prestigious international wines. Today, middle class consumers are more selective and drinking more; high class consumers are only drinking fine wines on special occasions and drinking mid-range wines during normal daily meals.
Gerardo: Mexico has experimented with and built on the strong development of global gastronomic specialties to offer guests greater choice. You’ll find restaurants serving French, Italian, Japanese, Greek, and Arabian cuisine, among others, around the city. At the same time, in the last five years or so, there’s been a significant increase in Mexican restaurants headed by extremely creative chefs who cook sophisticated recipes with quality traditional ingredients. The wine culture and knowledge of wine in Mexico is improving. It’s much more common that we can go to restaurants and find a great list offering interesting selections from the world’s main wine regions. The quality of sommeliers, managers, and service in general has improved and is keeping [up] with that in the most well-regarded gastronomic countries.
Luis: To be honest, the growth of wine consumption with food has been slow to develop in the last 10 years. A decade ago, annual consumption per capita was maybe 400 milliliters (13.5 ounces) of wine but in the last three to four years, this has grown to almost 1 liter (1 quart) of wine a year. While this nothing compared to the great consumer countries, for us, it’s a big step.
What is trending in Mexico City's food and wine scene right now?
Sandra: A reinvention of traditional Mexican cuisine.
Edwin: Restaurants are smaller and more specialized, offering a friendly, cozy environment for the political and business class. There’s a strong demand for healthy fast food places among the middle class, and regional food remains popular.
Gerardo: Chinese food is popular, and you’ll even find Greek and Arabian options, with restaurants featuring typical ingredients and sometimes creating a fusion with Mexican elements. Wine drinkers are experimenting with new grape varieties and styles. Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, orange wines, sparkling wine with ice, wine cocktails, sherry, port, and selections from unusual wine regions are sought by guests wanting to taste something different.
Luis: Mexico is a country that consumes more red wine than white, and food and wine pairings are mostly only offered for meat courses. Also, we consume a lot of Champagne.
Johan: Not everyone can afford to buy a bottle of wine, but in the cosmopolitan cities, like here in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Cancun, and Los Cabos, I think the most popular thing now is Mexican wine, which is really fun to say. In the 70s and 80s, our fathers drank brandy; for the last 10 years, everyone has wanted to drink wine. The other trend is that people [who] travel for business realize on trips overseas that they don’t know anything about wine. That’s great for us. When they return to Mexico City, they come to the restaurant and want to taste something. They need more information, they need a professional behind them, they need a true history of the cellar. They need to know what we can offer them in terms of food and wine pairing. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of sommeliers in Mexico that can do that yet, but I hope the industry will continue to develop quickly.
What is the prevailing attitude toward Mexican wines among domestic and international customers?
Sandra: Mexican wines are growing within the country by a remarkable average of 11 to 12% every year. Every top restaurant in Mexico has Mexican wine. International guests are very open to learn about, taste, and buy Mexican wines.
Edwin: Nationally, the general perception of Mexican wines is that they are expensive compared to imported wines and continually improving, although progress is slow. Mexican wines tend to be costly because Mexican wine producers have to import everything—technology, corks, bottles, etc.—and taxes are very high with no support offered by the government to help producers be more competitive. When foreigners arrive at a restaurant and see a wide selection of Mexican wine, they are often surprised and taste them out of curiosity, taking away, in most cases, a very positive image.
Gerardo: Although Mexican wine is already the second most consumed wine in our country, Mexican customers are still eager to try more domestic wines. Foreign customers coming to Mexico are looking to experience Mexican wine, and so their first choice is our wine.
Luis: Mexicans are supportive of and consuming more Mexican wines—much more so now than five years ago. Many people from other countries do not know that wines are produced in Mexico, and when a sommelier recommends a Mexican wine, it’s usually received very well.
Johan: I’ll give you an example from my personal experience working at Rosetta. Many people from all over the world come here to taste the food. I welcome people from London, from Italy, from the US and Canada, and they’re always curious to try a sip from a Mexican winery and are usually amazed by the quality of the wine. Many people believe that Mexico’s wine industry is not in a good place and that there are only one or two decent cellars, but you can forget that. There are many regions, such as Ensenada, Baja California, and Chihuahua, producing good wine with many different regions opening up. I try to help the little producers by putting their wines in the restaurant.
Are there rules or legislation for Mexico’s wine producers?
Johan: Mexico doesn’t have a lot yet of legislation yet. There are some rules from the government and, of course, there are taxes, which is a problem for the industry because the wines end up being quite pricey. When you look at a wine list, the Mexican wine is often more expensive than wines from other parts of the world. Consejo Mexicano Vitivinocola has tried to create some order in terms of the quality of the wines, but really it’s the producers supporting each other as the scene grows little by little—guys like Monte Xanic, Casa Herrero, L.A. Cetto, and Santo Tomás, which is the oldest cellar in Baja California, established in 1888. These guys put the first bricks in Mexico’s wine industry.
I cannot speak very well about the regulations because, even for us, it’s not clear. If you have the money, you can buy the grapes, and you can make wine. The concept of small production wines is a new concept in Mexico, and they’re of varying quality. Some cellars do make great wines by buying grapes from growers and renting crush facilities, but you don’t always see them in the market. Other small production wines by new producers are inconsistent—if you taste a 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintage from the same producer, you’ll taste completely different wines.
How do these attitudes, and guest preferences regarding international wines, influence your wine program?
Johan: Alongside Mexican wines, guests also want to try Italian and Spanish wines—Spain carries a lot of importance here—and wine from France and South Africa. Many people also want to discover new wines to take home and enjoy over the weekend. In restaurants with a skilled professional sommelier, you can find good wines from small producers that you can’t find in the stores.
Sandra: Imported wines represent 70% of the market share, Mexican wine only 30%. However, compared with numbers five years ago, gaining 30% of the current market is an enormous step.
Edwin: Mexican guests order Mexican wines when they want something in the mid-price range. When they want to order a higher-priced wine, they prefer to take a wine from France, Spain, or the US.
Gerardo: Current trends are only positive. Sommeliers are required to offer a wide range of international wines from many different wine regions of the world; guests have more opportunities to learn about and try more wines. Sommeliers can create wine lists with more personality in keeping with the concept of the restaurant.
Luis: Because Mexican wine does not dominate the list, you have to focus on some great Mexican wines, carefully selected for your customers.
What are the most popular categories of wine on your list?
Edwin: At Lipp La Brasserie, which specializes in French cuisine, our wine list includes selections from France, then Spain and Mexico. We sell more bottles of Spanish wine than anything else but make more money from French wine. Mexico is in third place. Chilean and Argentinian wine is sold in other important areas of the city.
Gerardo: Spanish wines are the best sellers. Mexican wine is second in terms of sales, and then France, Italy, and the New World.
Luis: French wine is the most popular at InterContinental Presidente, followed by Spanish wines. We also have one of the best selections of Mexican wines in the city.
Which wine trends do you think will be big this year?
Sandra: Hopefully whites! Our gastronomy goes amazingly with whites and rosé.
Luis: I think people are betting that consumption of Mexican wines will continue to increase. The production of local wine is also on the rise this year.
Johan: Less quantity, more quality. That is what the market wants today. For sommeliers working in fine dining restaurants, that is what we have to search for: quality in production, philosophy, and gastronomy. I think people will try to develop more skills in tasting, and as customers go to the tasting rooms, experience the cellars, sommeliers will set the trends.
What are the most important and least important aspects of service in Mexico City?
Sandra: Customers ask for nice glassware, that wines be served at the right temperatures and by knowledgeable staff. They like to have a sommelier serving them whenever they dine in top restaurants. Not having the wine list in USD or euros is not a problem.
Edwin: The service in the city of Mexico requires three fundamental aspects: good, friendly service; speedy service; tasty, high-quality food. Guests are moving away from formality. The cocktail bar is fashionable, and having a good selection of wines today is important.
Johan: Not everyone wants to learn. Some people just want to eat! We sommeliers try to approach customers in the way they find most comfortable in terms of the menu, the service, and the way we propose the wine and the food. Good service is to ensure the staff is trained and able to approach people and understand their interests, whether that’s drinking a glass or always learning.
Some people don’t want to appear as if they know nothing about wine, and that can be an obstacle. I find that I begin sometimes like a waiter: I offer food, and then I try to comment on the pairing, so that people don’t feel pressured. You have to be fun; you can’t approach people with a face like a rock and sommelier medals on the shelves. You can’t do this job with arrogance; you have to do it with humility. That’s the key.
How would you describe the people that choose to work in wine in Mexico City?
Edwin: It’s difficult to generalize, but if I have to list some typical qualities, I’ll say that waiters are kind, helpful, [and] willing but often lack training. It’s important to say that there are many brilliant people in Mexico City that want to address the needs of their guests.
Johan: It’s sad to say, but not all the high-end Mexican restaurants have a sommelier. It’s more common to find somms in French or Italian restaurants, or the cocina de autor by star chefs. Chef Elena Reygadas contacted me because she had need of a guide, not only for the staff but for the customers, and she needed a sommelier to stock the cellar to complement her food.
Sandra: Today, a great many young people are seeking a career in wine. Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as a program for restaurant staff, not as an in-depth career as it is now. Mexico as a country is being seen as an emerging market; as investment into this area increases and prospects become more attractive, there are sure to be more job opportunities in the field.
Gerardo: Sommeliers are very capable and well prepared, with a very positive attitude to their work—they’re always striving to offer outstanding service to the client. They’re keen to share their extensive knowledge of wine and educate staff members and customers about wine culture.
Luis: There are more young people working within wine sales, generally. Most people working in wine in Mexico have always worked in hospitality and many cooks and chefs are seeking a career as a sommelier.
Are there any barriers for young people looking to become wine professionals?
Sandra: There aren’t really any barriers. Individuals can pay for their own studies, and there are also a lot of restaurants and hotels paying for staff wine training. Currently, there are lots of Spanish and French DOs looking for people to represent them.
Edwin: There’s no upper level for the topic of wine education. Today, there are many schools, associations, and groups that are teaching graduates without being certified and making their students believe that they will leave as a sommelier [after a short course], when we know that it is a vast subject that requires extensive study, dedication, and practice. On the other hand, there are more and more restaurants investing in talent with at least a basic knowledge of wine [and helping them to develop it].
Luis: In Mexico, the only requirement to get a good sommelier position in a restaurant or to work in a wine store is to pass the diploma with an acceptable grade and level of knowledge. There are many schools and associations through which you can earn a diploma of wine to become a sommelier; many also organize contests for sommeliers in Mexico.
What is the sommelier community like?
Edwin: Even though it’s a small community, it is one in constant growth and always making huge strides. However, the sommelier community in Mexico City is still extremely fragmented with little solidarity. Associations and groups are not united. There are four major groups working separately, each doing something for the good of the sector but unfortunately in independent efforts.
Luis: Definitely we are very competitive, but sommeliers in Mexico are not so supportive in terms of study and tasting groups.
What would you say to a sommelier thinking about moving to Mexico City?
Sandra: Welcome to some great opportunities!
Johan: There are more and more opportunities in hotels and resorts, and not only in spirits—tequila and mezcal—but professional beverage work, generally. Recently, we’ve seen many French guys, Italian guys, and so on, come to Mexico to work for a few years and stay. They have businesses, restaurants… They have a life here.
Edwin: It’s a great city with many opportunities for growth and learning in terms of service within high-level restaurants. Offers in the wine sector are growing significantly, although sommeliers are poorly paid in most of the cases.
Gerardo: Come! You can find a good place to work, with many great opportunities to learn more about wine. Salaries might not the best, but Mexico is a great place to live.
What would you like to see happen in the Mexico City dining scene in the next few years?
Sandra: Mexico becoming the first Latin American gastronomy destination, with Mexican wine being exported much more. There’s a very important federal plan in place called “Ven a Comer” which involves federal institutions putting their resources into supporting all agricultural produce that identifies Mexico as a country. Vines and wines are part of the plan!
Edwin: I want the scene to become increasingly professional and competition to become increasingly stronger and offer great opportunities for trained sommeliers.
Gerardo: I want to see the quality in service, food, and wines continue to improve. I would like to see more developments in the local wine culture and Mexico’s wine industry generally, with the creation of more, better-paid sommelier jobs.
Johan: I hope I can grow the CMS program to make us stronger as a community so that we can send more professionals out to the world. It’s my dream to have Master Sommeliers in this country. We have the quality of people to do it; we don’t want to be rock stars, but we want to be people that believe in what we’re doing, to create a culture for future generations that want to have a career as a sommelier in America or in Latin America, especially in Mexico City.
What specific restaurant or dining experience, other than your own, would you recommend to a food-and-drink lover as being quintessentially Mexico City?
Johan: Maximo Bistrot by Eduardo García and his wife Gabriela. MeroToro by Chef Jair Téllez. He also has another restaurant, Laja, in the Ensenada wine region in northern Mexico bordering the US and the Baja part of Mexico. Many people from that area are moving to Mexico City to open restaurants, and he’s the best example, I think. Pujol restaurant by Chef Enrique Olvera. Au Pied de Cochon, a traditional French restaurant and one of the best places in terms of quality.
Sandra: Many! Quintonil by Chef Jorge Vallejo. Dulce Patria by Chef Martha Ortiz. Pujol. Nicos by Chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo. Sud 777 by Chef Edgar Nuñez. Maximo Bistrot. Biko by Chef Mikel Alonso. Rosetta and Lardo. Garum. Kaye. J&G Grill.
Edwin: Gloutonnerie, a chef-driven restaurant specializing in French cuisine, and Dulce Patria for high-end Mexican food.
Gerardo: Lipp La Brasserie and Au Pied de Cochon for French cuisine. For Spanish and Mexican, El Puntal del Norte, Candela Romero, and Kaye. For Greek food, I recommend Mythos. Simon’s has great seafood, and Palm is good for steaks. If you like Italian, check out Cantinetta del Becco and Rosetta.
Luis: One of my favorite places in Mexico is an Italian restaurant named Il Becco, where you can find an excellent selection of Italian wine.
Many thanks to Johan, Gerardo, Sandra, Edwin, and Luis for sharing their thoughts on Mexico City’s wine scene and sommelier community!
Great overdue article. L'Osteria del Becco in Polancito has 15,000btls in a 2-story, all glass (floors, ceilings, walls), multi-room cellar of mostly Piedmont with some very cool Tuscany and Veneto as well. The reason why Spanish and Italian wines do so well is because of the typical Mexican ridiculous taxing structure that makes it easy and cheap to direct import ex-chateau from those countries as opposed to truck it in from Baja. The Intercontinental in Polanco has the largest cellar in the Americas. I won't say I haven't seen crazier bottlings in other, much smaller cellars, but the brick-lined "cave" under the hotel has to be an (American) football field long, packed floor to about 5ft high. Great International restaurant culture of discipline and service, and they do well when the government is laissez-faire.