South of the Border Wine Country
Story and photos by John Blanchette
t was 2 a.m. my last night in Baja.
Standing on the veranda of my hotel room on Rosarito Beach, the full
moon illuminated the slate gray ocean and a phosphorescent white glow
in the foaming waves as they ebbed and receded from the shore.
Millions of years ago these salt waters covered the
peninsula, layering in shell that would become limestone. When the tectonic
plates rose and forced the waters back they cracked the granite that
lined the earth's crust into boulders, which later mixed with the illuvial
soils of clay, sand, and other minerals to form the land that would
so influence the vineyards.
I last visited the Baja Peninsula in 1986, about the
time that the first modern plantings of vines were occurring in the
northern valleys. Now about 70 mostly small family run wineries dot
the landscapes in the Valle de Guadalupe, Santo Tomás, Vicente,
San Antonio de las Minas and Valle de las Palmas regions, where 90 percent
of Mexico's wine is produced within a 100 mile radius and less than
a two hour drive from the American border south of San
Vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe
The Spanish were the first to plant grapes in the region
during the 16th century, primarily to use as sacramental wine. In the
1860s Russian immigrants escaping Czarist persecution started settling
in the Valle de Guadalupe and also planted grapes. To this day you can
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 is best known for
having joined Californias Wente Vineyard to produce Duetto, a
50-50 Santo Tomas/Wente blend. They also produce exceptional olive oil
and last year shocked the Italians when it won first prize at a blind
tasting in Milan.
Best known of the Baja wine areas is Valle de Guadalupe.
Situated off the coast in a rising plane between Rosarita and Ensenada,
most of the vineyards are planted between 1,000 and 1,300 feet elevation,
beginning about twelve miles up the incline from the ocean, the wine
growing area stretches about 20 miles. Warning to acrophobes, don't
look down when you're driving along this wine country road.
The stone and boulder strewn land is a reminder that
it once dwelt below the sea, and its 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 the grape
in similar ways that California coastal vineyards experience, but harvest
begins a bit earlier, in August. Thirty-five varieties of wine grapes
are cultivated including Italian and Spanish varietals which do well
here, especially Tempranilo and Nebbiolo, which is usually the last
grape to be harvested.
Nebbiolo Grapes Days Before Harvest in the La Cetto
Other grapes which adapt to the warmer climate and make
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 (La Khet-toe),
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 wine has won numerous international gold medals. Next door is
the La Casa de Dona Lupe vineyard where you can sample local cheese
and olives with your wine.
Monte Xanic vineyards
Other outstanding wineries with tasting rooms include
Monte Xanic, founded in 1987 by Hans Backhoff and regarded as one of
the top produces in the area. Domecq, which used to be known for its
Sherry and Brandy, now concentrates on non-fortified wines. Tres Valles,
which as the name implies, features bold reds from the Guadalupe, Santo
Tomás and San Vicente valleys. The beautiful Hacienda La Lomita
and Pijoan wineries produces some nice whites. Many consider that 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, one of the pioneers of the modern Baja wine
My favorite winemaker, Monica Palafox of Palafox winery,
delivers across the board, from whites to reds. Located in Valle de
la Grulla, south of Ensenada and abutting the Santo Tomás Valley,
you need to make a reservation to taste, www.aldopalafox.com.
Other Vineyards with tasting rooms include Baron Balche,
Bibayoff, Sol de Media Noche, Vinas de Liceaga and Vinos Fuentes.
Monica Palafox and my favorite wine in Baja
In August, 2012, Mexican President Felipe Calderón
dedicated the new wine museum in the Valle de Guadalupe, built with
$5.3 million in state and federal funds, and announced the establishment
of a $3.8-million fund aimed at supporting Mexicos 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,
especially the field workers, and many of the wine makers have experience
in Europe as well as the Western United States. Whether the Mexican
wines will ever rival those remains to be seen, but there is a lot of
optimism and European and American wineries are sharing in the interest
America laws restrict the amount of alcohol that can
be brought across the border to one liter, which is one of the reasons
that only about 20 percent of tasting room guests are from outside of
Mexico. The other is that Mexicans are developing a taste for wine and
an appreciation of the vineyards in Baja.
When You Go:
Until recently, Baja wines had little to no commercial
presence in the United States because of the small production and low
importer interest. However the wines mentioned here can be purchased
directly from the vineyards or from the San Diego firm winesfrombaja.com.
Some of the larger vineyards have tasting rooms open
daily to the public, but for many others you need to make reservations.
Brochures available through the Baja Tourist Office provide contact
information. English is spoken at all the tasting rooms.
The peso is worth about 80 cents to the dollar and in
Baja you get more for your money if you deal in dollars and don't convert
There are a number of housing and dining options. In
wine country I did some "glamping" at Cuarto Cuartos vineyards,
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, day and night.
When dinning in Rosarito try the obligatory lobster
dinner at Puerto Nuevo restaurant and enjoy a Mexican breakfast at the
eccentric El Nido. In the Valle de Guadalupe enjoy the local cuisine
at Meson Leonardo and be sure to try the apple pie. In Ensenada, try
the upscale oceanside dinning at Belio and Nigori Sushi for a change
Whenever you're in Ensenada you must visit the historic
watering hole Hussong's for margaritas and mariachis. Founded in 1892
by German immigrant John Hussong, it is the oldest cantina in Mexico.
Port of Ensenada
For brochures, the Ruta del Vino map, tasting room reservations,
housing, restaurant information and lists of events and festivals, contact
Paz, Baja Sur; Images
of La Paz, Baja California Sur; Las
The Culinary Center of the Napa Valley; Playa
del Carmen, Yucatan; Riviera
People of Guadalajara