It’s a 6.5 hour drive from Oaxaca to a central Mexico region known for its vineyards, wineries, and tastings of boutique wines and locally produced cheeses.
Who would have thought that there’s a grape growing region in Mexico aside from the vineyards in Baja California, and that it’s accessible to tourists visiting Oaxaca for a couple of weeks? Wineries have been producing reds, whites and sparking wines in southeast Querétaro since the 1970s. And now that the Arco Norte toll road has been extended to beyond Querétaro, vacationers and ex-pat retirees in Oaxaca (as well as native Oaxacans and all other wine aficionados of course), are able to take a weekend jaunt into central Mexico’s wine country.
The region boasts more than wine, with several cheese outlets peppered throughout a number of towns and villages, making for a real wine and cheese tour. And in addition, there are several other interesting sights interspersed throughout the region, which one can visit over the course of a two or three day sojourn out of Oaxaca.
Driving from Oaxaca to the Wine and Cheese Touring Region of Querétaro
Getting from Oaxaca to the wine and cheese region of Querétaro uses the same route as one takes driving from Oaxaca to San Miguel de Allende, utilizing the Arco Norte toll road. One entirely avoids the Mexico City area. The total distance from Oaxaca to the first town, Tequisquiapan, is 630 kilometers, and takes about 6.5 hours, at least if driving on the weekend, and thus avoiding most rush-hour traffic and construction. The tolls cost a total of 571 pesos (in 2010), one way. Get off the Arco Norte at San Juan del Rio, and continue on to Tequisquiapan.
The Cheese Outlets of Southern Querétaro
After leaving San Juan del Rio, there is cheese production in the towns leading up to the wineries, as well as in several other towns and villages worthy of visiting in the region. In fact some restaurants, rather than starting with complimentary salsas and tostadas upon arrival, serve a bowl of soft, herbed cheese for spreading over sliced crusty buns (for example, El Tejabán in Tequisquiapan).
The most economically priced cheeses are apparently sold in wheels in Bernal (we arrived at the hamlet too late in the day, and left too early in the morning to sample its cheeses). However there are retail cheese stores in Tequisquiapan (i.e. La Vaca Feliz), and Ezequiel Montes (Doña Licha), the two towns en route to the wineries. The selection includes parmesan, sheep’s milk, goat milk (soft and hard), some varieties aged more than others, fresh with herb, chili, and / or spices, as well as the usual range of traditional cheeses such as chihuahua and gouda.
There are also four cheese factories in the state: Rancho la Hondonada, Rancho Santa Marina, Rancho San Josemaría and Quesos VAI.
The Southern Querétaro Wine Tour, As Part of a Weekend Drive from Oaxaca
Tastings are available at two of the three wineries, the only holdout being Hacienda Los Azteca (www.losazteca.com), newest of the three. It’s a boutique winery ten minutes north of Ezequiel Montes, wine roots planted in 2006. The tour is impressive. The owner worked at Freixenet in both Spain and Mexico for nine years before opening this combined winery / riding ranch / restaurant / event facility. The grounds are spectacular for their age (ex hacienda), expansiveness and diversity of activities carried on. It currently produces an artisanal red, a blend of six grapes, sold at 500 pesos a bottle. Production is currently limited to less than 2,000 bottles.
Across the highway is Cavas Freixenet de México (www.freixenetmexico.com.mx), first established in 1979. While Freixenet is traditionally known for its quality sparkling wines (nine varieties are produced on site), it produces non-sparkling un-oaked white, rosé and red, as well as barreled wines. Its selection of five reds and whites under the Viña Doña Dolores label, impress the most. Best product (and value) is the Gran Reserva, Cab/Malbec, aged in
oak 15 months, costing 222 pesos. Freixenet offers an extensive facility tour, as well as video, and tastings of each wine.
Just south of Ezequiel Montes, on the right, the first winery one passes north of Tequisquiapan is La Redonda (www.laredonda.com.mx), founded in 1972. The highway sign reads “Orlandi.” It offers a tour and tastings. The product range is broad, and includes an inexpensive sweet red suitable as an accompaniment with gorgonzola or blue. The only downside is that tastings of the better reds are not available. Imported wines are also available.
In general, while the vineyards produce some good wines, management does not have down pat accustomed tasting methods (at least by US and Canadian standards such as in Nappa, California, or Niagara, Ontario). All wines should be available for tasting at each of the three wineries, sure enough with perhaps cost on a sliding scale, depending on the wine’s price. Water is available to cleanse the palate, but for the asking. At the La Redonda tasting bar, wines are served in small plastic shot samplers. On the weekends at Freixenet (one should inquire regarding weekday custom), it’s not much better, wines served in plastic soft drink glasses.
Freixenet Wine Bar in Tequisquiapan, Querétaro
Notwithstanding the criticism of tasting methods noted above, curiously, in Tequisquiapan, just off the main square at Calle Benito Juárez 4-C, there’s a Freixenet Wine Bar, which gets it all right. Wine stems are appropriate to the product served, and appetizers are available, including cubed cheeses, olives, breads, cold meats and seafood platters. And the prices can’t be beat, at 40 pesos for your choice of domestic wine, 55 pesos for imported (priced the same as at the La Olla Wine Bar in Oaxaca), and full bottles at winery prices plus 55 pesos for corkage. The atmosphere is most comfortable. Hours are 5 p.m. to midnight.