“I like what alcohol does on the table,” natural winemaker Marcelo Castro Vera says, waving his hand at the dozens of wines and spirits laid out before me in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tasting room, tucked down one of the burnt orange alleyways of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I see what he means as he and I work our way through his lineup of Octágono’s white, skin-contact, rosado, red, and fortified wines — and later, all 20 of the mezcals, limoncellos, and grappas from his Penca y Piedra distillery. There’s an implicit invitation in the way the bottles crowd together, like friends at a party.
Soon, we’re huddled in similar fashion, chatting effusively about the vitality of Castro Vera’s wines with friends of his who drop by for a drink that turns into three. While the tastings are by appointment only, there’s a cast of local characters who rotate through on any given day to chat and drink with the winemaker: On this particular occasion, that includes a restaurant owner seeking his opinion on their new coffee-crusted steak and a bespoke pizza oven maker who waxes poetic about the relationship between wine harvest and horoscopes. The result is an informal tasting that feels like an intimate, impromptu, and, eventually, inebriated gathering of your new closest friends.
While wine and mezcal tastings aren’t hard to come by in San Miguel, none come close to Castro Vera’s uniquely generous setup. As a trained hotelier who was raised in the hospitality industry, he’s well aware of what it takes to make an impression — but he does it on his terms. So do his wines, for that matter.
Castro Vera grew up in San Miguel, the colorful and cosmopolitan hub of Guanajuato’s budding wine region where he now employs ancestral techniques to make wines that “speak for themselves.” He says he’s “passionate” rather than “radical” when it comes to his rejection of any modern intervention in the winemaking process — this, after admitting that he only recently installed a single lightbulb in his winery.
Octágono, founded by Castro Vera in 2016, became the first winery in Mexico to ferment all of its wines in clay amphorae made by local artisans. The wines — playful, energetic, and fiercely alive, much like the winemaker himself — are made with absolutely zero intervention. Everything is pressed by foot, destemmed by hand, and fermented for up to nine months without additives. The only machine used in the entire process is a corker, which saves Castro Vera’s team a significant amount of time in enclosing the 20,000 hand-labeled bottles they produce and distribute around Mexico and into the U.S. and Canada each year.
“When you bottle it, it’s still a living entity; there’s still living energy to be drank,” he says.
VinePair chatted with Castro Vera about the future of Mexican wine, his “mi casa es tu casa” approach to tastings, and his devotion to no-intervention winemaking techniques.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1. Let’s talk conventional wine. I know you’ve got some hot takes on the industry, as it’s where you got your start.
I like to joke and say that I was on the dark side before. I was collecting wine and drinking a lot of conventional Mexican wine, and that got me into the world of wine. But now I don’t drink conventional wine for many reasons. I believe in natural wine, regardless of if it’s mine. I believe in the whole perspective, to start from the grapes without chemical intervention. Most of the conventional wines intervene with the grapes in the vineyard and many intervene at some point with the wine itself.
I love how natural wine tastes; I feel the energy in it. I love what it feels like when you’re opening it and pouring it and taking it inside your body. For conventional wine, I can’t judge it — I know it has to be there or else there won’t be enough supply — but it’s dead. They’re all trying to be sheep and go one way in terms of production and taste.
2. Your winemaking process is committed to a lack of intervention in terms of both additives and technology. Can you speak to some of the ancient techniques you rely on to make your wines?
I know that our wine is very unique. There are other producers like me in the world, but let’s just say that here in Mexico, [there aren’t]. We make it in clay vessels. I don’t know any other winery in Mexico fermenting, aging, making wine in an amphora — in cooked dirt. I don’t know any other winery in Mexico that does the entire process from start to finish by hand. We don’t own a single machine. We don’t own a destemmer, we don’t own a press, we don’t own pumps. I don’t even know the names of other machines — I’m not an expert because I don’t have them. Up until recently, we didn’t even have electricity in the winery; we finally put a light bulb in for when it’s late at night and we’re still crushing the grapes with our feet.
The way we’re making wine, it’s really like it was made thousands of years ago: The grape comes, and we step on it. Then we destem by hand, we press the grapes with our hands, then we just let it precipitate. We let it clarify. Of course we don’t filter it, so it’s a bit turbid, but we like to let the wine express itself. Some bacteria might come, giving it not necessarily a funky taste — but I call my wine unique. I don’t think it’s that funky, although funky for some people might mean different things.
3. You were the first winery in Mexico to use clay amphorae to ferment your wines. What inspired you to do that?
What drew me specifically is that my wife and I read some articles about winemaking in clay; she’s from Uzbekistan, which is an ex-Soviet Union country that has a long heritage of winemaking in clay, like Georgia, which is considered the birthplace of wine.
The municipality where [our] winery is located [outside of Léon] is known for their pottery, so we figured, “Why not learn from these people who have knowledge and let them help you create this vessel where the magic will happen?” We coat our amphorae with beeswax on the inside, and we bury them for temperature control and to be in contact with Mother Earth.
Also, we weren’t prepared financially to invest in stainless steel tanks; to create this typical winery with technology and automatization. But when we decided to make wine, the clay was already there locally to make the vessels. So I feel like it was a bit cosmic — as us Mexicans say, “The stars aligned.”
4. You choose not to include grape varietals on your labels. Why is that?
I understand the wine world likes to know everything because that’s what they’re accustomed to. We believe the grape should speak for itself. It’s a white wine made from a white grape; why don’t you just try it first and then tell me if you like it? And if you like it, must you know what grape it was? Just let yourself go and be more down to earth, instead of grabbing the bottle like, “Ooh, a Chardonnay. Ahh, aged eight months in French barrels.” With that, you’re already mentally preparing for what you’re going to taste. Why not let it surprise you? Let life surprise you.
5. You refer to your wines as ‘juices.’ How does that speak to your philosophy about winemaking and wine drinking?
Yeah, I like to call them juices. I do understand that wine has alcohol, but by not intervening or adding or correcting, you still have this sense of a juice. My wines are also very fresh and easy to drink — they don’t hit you with the alcohol like other wines [they’re around 12 percent ABV]. They’re a refreshing, little bit alcoholic, juice.
We make the wines in clay, without technology, with no machines for bottling or labeling, and we still maintain an affordable cost on the bottle. We’re here for more than just the profit — we’re here to share our passion and energy and wines, and we want people to have access to them.
6. Can you tell me a bit about your winery and El Nidal, the shipping container hotel located onsite?
The winery is an old construction made in the shape of an octagon — hence the name Octágono. It’s made of adobe, and the roof is metal. There’s not a fancy lobby with lamps and benches to take a picture with. We’re not into the fancy-pantsy part. But the mountains are very pretty — it’s a magical place.
El Nidal is a hotel with eight shipping containers that we refurbished with beds and a bathroom [in San Felipe, Guanajuato]. There’s an open kitchen that is our “restaurant,” but I use quotes because we don’t love calling it that. It’s more like a project that works like a hotel and restaurant. The restaurant has three communal tables made out of fallen tree trunks. We don’t have a menu, we only cook with fire in the open palapa, and we serve buffet-style with whatever we can get our hands on. We smoke meats, and we serve salads and some other things from the farm.
7. Let’s talk about your tasting room experience. What does it include, and what do you hope visitors get out of it?
We were lucky to get this very small property — 40 square meters — in San Miguel de Allende, which is my home. We got this place and we remodeled it and now we have a presence here, where it’s so cosmopolitan and open-minded. We didn’t have a business plan. We do pop-ups upstairs and opened the tasting room downstairs, which started small with word of mouth and we now have an Airbnb Experience.
I don’t even think they should be called tastings. It’s really a magical thing we do there. We like to connect with people — we’re not there to showcase our own words, we’re not there to throw you a peanut and ask how many bottles you’re going to buy. We’re there to connect with people, to get to know and learn from them and share our wines with them.
We do try our five wines and 20 spirits, our mezcals and liquors and schnapps. We are there to share a table with spreads that we’ve been curating for years. We don’t just open some hummus from Walmart. We make the food at the open kitchen on our ranch, like our hummus and baba ganoush and our brujeria [an addictive caramelized onion spread]. We put out chapulines [crickets] and sugar coated cacao beans. We want to be unique; we find local providers. We play vinyls; we’re surrounded by Uzbeki textiles from my wife’s country and with her photography. We really try to have a good time, to share energy.
We never want to be seen as a restaurant or a bar. We want to be seen as someone else’s home. Mexicans are very hospitable, you know — we say mi casa es tu casa, and when people come, they should feel comfortable.
8. Tell me about the mezcals and spirits you share during tastings. How do they work together with the wines?
We actually started with mezcal, and wine came after. It’s our first baby and we’re really proud of it. It’s another drink that comes with a very unique energy and taste; it’s a superb-quality drink. We won two first place labels in one year at the Brussels World Competition.
But we did not stay only with mezcal. We decided to really experiment, to go and ferment fruits; to make schnapps out of it. We did that with mango — just pure fruit, fermented and distilled. Then we did that with prickly pear, and it’s amazing. We distill pulque now, too. We like to play around.
We make a habanero liquor, some limoncellos, some grappa. All of our productions are limited and produced in small batches since our installation is very artisanal. It’s like at the winery: It’s all done by hand, from cooking the mezcal piñas over a wood fire to fermenting them naturally.
9. You shared a jug of an experimental pét-nat with me at your tasting room. Are there any other experiments you’re working on?
We made the first piquette in Mexico, and we believe we made the first co-fermented drink [in Mexico]: a prickly pear co-fermented with grapes. We don’t like standing still, but we do also have to produce our wines. We’re about to put a very small amount of wine in cans just to see how that goes.
10. Mexico’s wine regions are rapidly expanding, with Guanajuato at the forefront. What do you want to see as more wineries pop up?
They’re popping up but all with the same processes, the same ideals — to make money; to have a similar taste. I do think it’s good; Mexico is so big, and I hope more people open wineries. But I would wish that more people would be more in tune with what’s happening in the world and how wine could be more natural. There is a market for it. Sadly, it’s mostly not Mexicans drinking natural wine in Mexico, but we’re getting there. Why not fight for it?
I feel like producers should try to go outside the box. What I like drinking in Mexico, and many people do, is more whites or oranges, maybe rosés, too. I mean come on, all over the country, especially with climate change, it’s hot. Who wants to drink a red wine at 2 p.m. with their lunch? It’s heavy and hot out there. Rosés can be made out of red grapes, which many wineries have, but rosé has this stigma here for being feminine and sweet. Just enjoy it with a nice ceviche or whatever you want.