Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smooth Getaway Postcard From Baja Mexico

It was 2 a.m. on my last night in Baja. Standing on the veranda of my hotel room at Rosarito Beach, I watched the full moon illuminate a slate gray ocean as a phosphorus alien glow emanated from the foaming waves ebbing and receding from the shore.

Millions of years ago, these salt waters covered the Baja peninsula, layering in shell that would become limestone. When the tectonic plates rose and forced the waters back, they also cracked the granite lining of the earth's crust into boulders, which later mixed with clay, sand and various minerals to compose this land that so influences local vineyards.

I last visited the Baja Peninsula in 1986, around the time modern vine plantings began in the northern valleys. Now, about 70 family wineries dot the landscape in the Valle de Guadalupe, Santo Tomás, Vicente, San Antonio de las Minas and Valle de las Palmas regions. Here 90 percent of Mexico's wine is produced within a 100 mile radius and less than a two hour drive from the American border.

The Spanish were the first to cultivate grapes in the region during the 16th century, primarily for sacramental wine. In the 1860s, Russian immigrants escaping Czarist persecution settled in the Valle de Guadalupe and also planted grapes. To this day, you occasionally see a blond or red head descendant in the valley.

The oldest surviving vineyard is Bodega de Santo Tomas, founded in 1888. Aside from its Reserva Unico, it's best known for partnering with California’s Wente Vineyard to produce Duetto, a 50-50 Santo Tomas/Wente blend. They also make exceptional olive oil, which shocked the Italians by winning first prize at a blind tasting in Milan.

Best known of the Baja wine areas is Valle de Guadalupe. Situated off the coast on a rising plane between Rosarita and Ensenada, most of the vineyards are planted at just over 1,000 feet of elevation. Beginning about twelve miles up the incline from the ocean, the wine growing area stretches for around 20 miles. Warning to acrophobes, don't look down when driving along this wine country road.

The stone and boulder strewn land is a reminder that it once dwelt below the sea. This austere landscape has a major influence on the quality of the wine. The off-shore flow of cool air in the evenings mitigates the warm days and contributes to the development of grapes not unlike those from California coastal vineyards. However, harvest begins a bit earlier, in August.

Thirty-five varieties of wine grapes are cultivated, including Italian and Spanish varietals that do well here, especially Tempranilo and Nebbiolo, which is the last grape to be harvested. Other grapes adaptable to the warmer climate and making up the largest plantings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

In Tecata, the northeast area of the Valle de Guadalupe, lies the second largest vineyard in Mexico: La Cetto, with a volume of 800,000 cases a year selling between $7 and $50 depending on the wine. The tasting room receives about 200,000 visitors a year and the wines have won numerous international gold medals. Next door is La Casa de Dona Lupe vineyard, where you can sample local cheese and olives with your wine.

Other outstanding wineries with tasting rooms include the Monte Xanic, founded in 1987 by Hans Backhoff and regarded as one of the top producers in this area, Domecq, which used to be known for its Sherry and Brandy but now concentrates on non-fortified wines, and Tres Valles, which features bold reds from the Guadalupe, Santo Tomás and San Vicente valleys as the name implies.

The beautiful Hacienda La Lomita and Pijoan wineries create some nice whites. Many believe Viñas de Garza produces the finest wines in the area and his Cabernet reflects that in its price of $54. Also, try the wines at Casa de Piedra, Vinisterra and Rincón de Guadalupe vineyards. In Ensenada, visit Fernando Martain at Cavas Valmar, a pioneer of the modern Baja wine region.

My favorite winemaker, Monica Palafox, delivers across the board from whites to reds. Palafox winery is located in Valle de la Grulla, south of Ensenada abutting the Santo Tomás Valley. You need to make a reservation through www.aldopalafox.com to taste. Other vineyards with tasting include Baron Balche, Bibayoff, Sol de Media Noche, Vinas de Liceaga and Vinos Fuentes.

In August 2012, Mexican President Felipe Calderón dedicated the wine museum in the Valle de Guadalupe. It was built with $5.3 million in government funds and accompanied by the formal establishment of a $3.8 million fund aimed at supporting Mexico’s wine industry. Its facilities highlight the history and tradition of wine-making in the region through interactive displays.

Many of those working in the Mexican wine industry have trained in California, Oregon and Washington. Many of the wine makers have experience in Europe as well as the West Coast. Whether Mexican wines will ever rival those remains to be seen, but there is a lot of optimism. European and American wineries are showing interest as well. 
American laws restrict transporting alcohol across the border to one liter, which is one reason only 20 percent of tasting room guests are from outside Mexico. Another is that Mexicans are developing a taste for wine and an appreciation of the Baja vineyards.

Until recently, Baja wines had little commercial presence in the U.S. This was due to minimal production and also low importer interest. However, the wines mentioned here can be purchased directly from the vineyards.

Brochures from Baja Tourist Office give contact info for most vineyards. English is spoken at all tasting rooms. Business can be conducted in Baja with pesos or dollars.

There are many housing and dining options. I did some "glamping" at Cuarto Cuartos, taking advantage of elegant cabanas set in the middle of an expansive vineyard with magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean from the hilltops on the property. In Rosarito, I stayed at the New Port Beach Hotel, where the water laps against the shore.

When dining in Rosarito, try the obligatory lobster dinner at Puerto Nuevo restaurant. Also, enjoy a Mexican breakfast at the eccentric El Nido. In the Valle de Guadalupe, enjoy the local cuisine at Meson Leonardo, being sure to try the apple pie. In Ensenada, relish the upscale oceanside dining at Belio or savor Nigori Sushi for a change of pace.

Finally, you must visit Ensenada's historic watering hole Hussong's for margaritas and the mariachis. Founded in 1892 by German immigrant John Hussong, it's the oldest cantina around.

John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer, television producer, and public relations company owner in Santa Monica, California.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting... I didn't know there was that much of a wine industry in Mexico. It does seem to me that the Baja area doesn't get the coverage that other parts of the country sees internationally...