As we ascended a stony ridge on horseback, the valley floor lay silent below quilted by rows of tightly knitted vineyards and strung together by olive trees. Fleeing a cool, dusk breeze chaperoned in from the east an Orange Crush light spilled over the hills and into the belly of Ensenada. The late afternoon sun shed long shadows across a small, white cemetery and freckled the vines with splashes of gold whose fruit will soon bear the majestic nectar of a bright and vibrant new wine region.
If you are looking for a quick weekend away to wine country without Napa Valley prices look no further or rather look south to Northern Baja, Mexico where the Wild West meets Tuscany in this coastal valley with over one hundred wineries, five-star dining and gourmet food trucks. Most people associate the libations of Mexico with Margaritas, Mezcal and Modelos. But now rustic elegance awaits you just an hour and a half south of the San Ysidro border in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Settled by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century and Russian Molokans, a religious minority that fled what is now Southern Georgia in the late 1800’s, the Valle de Guadalupe and neighboring valleys are home to over 7,000 acres of vines. Ninety percent of Mexico’s wines are produced here and the well-heeled gentry from Mexico City are no strangers to the next Napa Valley. Climate conditions mirror some of California’s best AVA’s allowing grapes such as Tempranillo, Syrah, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Nebbiolo to thrive. Warm days, cold nights and coastal fog offer a perfect recipe for ideal growing conditions though recent droughts have pressed winemakers to implement innovative irrigation techniques. I found the best time of year to go is Fall or Spring but not Summer when temperatures soar along with hotel prices. August is sweltering but that doesn’t stop the influx of wine enthusiasts who flock to the Valle for numerous harvest parties and wine-pairing dinners. Over the last ten years, the Valle has blossomed into the ideal three-day get away especially for those of us who are within driving distance.
Start heading south along the coastal route and take in the Coronado Islands on the horizon before stopping at Puerto Nuevo for fresh lobsters – a good lunch makes for an even better afternoon of wine tasting. At La Mision, head up the back way to the wine country which sets the mood with slow, winding roads and rural landscape. The Valle runs east-west more or less and traveling along Route 3 from Ensenada is efficient but marred by large trucks headed for Tecate. For the techies out there, download the app for called “LaRutaENG” which includes maps for wineries, breweries and restaurants.
Unlike a lot of California wine country, the tasting fees (roughly 200 Pesos or US$10 per person) are attractive along with the size of the pours. You may want to share a glass with your partner if you want to make it past 2 pm. No expense has been spared in the Valle exhibited by unique, stunning architecture and cutting-edge capital equipment rivaling any American or European wine estate. Don’t be surprised if you pass a ranchero riding an Azteca horse along the way. Several of the roads are still unpaved creating a sense of adventure and discovery.
First stop, Alximia, an eccentric structure resembling an astronomy lab thanks to the wine maker, Alvaro Alvarez, who is a PhD in mathematics. Alximia’s reds typify the terroir of the Valle with their earthy, dark fruit, minerals and sea salt overtones. If you skipped lobster due to your shellfish allergy, dig in to some duck roulade or octopus ceviche at their in-house restaurant LaX.
On to Finca La Carrodilla, my hands-down favorite winery. Carrodilla is a biodynamic vineyard sitting at the base of one of many red, rocky outcrops with a fantastic view of the valley and meticulous garden both outside and on their upstairs patio. Try the exquisite Chardonnay that elicits tropical fruit without overbearing oak and just enough acidity. My personal favorite is the bold and complex Syrah that exudes that unique Valle de Guadalupe briney-saignee flavor with a touch of clove rendering itself a glorious match for a grilled steak. This should be one of the two bottles you are allowed to bring across the border (yes, it’s a travesty). Next stop is El Corcho Rosa, otherwise known as Valley Girl Wines, to sample some of Sitara’s bright and exuberant Rose. The wines sport sassy labels and capture Sitara’s charismatic personality. She literally springs about like a wine fairy, if ever there was one!
Now it might be time to check into your hotel before heading out for some “Baja Med” cuisine. Hotel Boutique snuggles right into the heart of the valley offering horseback rides through the vineyards, several options for accommodation and an excellent breakfast at their restaurant Fuego. The best part about this hotel are the bountiful nooks and crannies throughout the garden to sit and contemplate life or enjoy some sparkling wine while watching the sun drop behind the rocky hills. Now that your stomach is growling, it’s time to make your way to Fauna on the Bruma Winery property. The beauty of the Valle is that it doesn’t take long to get from one end to the other. Fauna sits on the eastern portion of the Valle constructed of all recycled materials including wine barrels and wine bottles. Chef David Castro Hussong is no stranger to fine cuisine having worked at 11 Madison in New York as well as other reputable kitchens. He might serve a seafood tower as the Pacific sits 20 minutes away or perhaps a wicked Mezcal his cousin distilled in Durango.
Day two, before you hit the bottles, make a stop at the Museo del Vino. This sits almost at the crossroads of Highway 3 and the road leading you from the northern stretch of wineries. Here you will find a chronological layout of how the Valle emerged as well as a break out of the various soils and terroir found in Baja (superb for those of us wine nerds). This represents an accessible overview of this exploding wine destination with historical context. The museum is right along your route to Lechuza Winery (appointment only) owned and operated by a lovely American couple who make gorgeous Chardonnay and Nebbiolo, the gem of the Valle. Pop into the infamous Deckman’s for an outdoor lunch serving fois gras and oysters as well as smoked meats displayed on their wood-fired grill. Head further west to Vinas De Garza. This winery sits on a small hill with a lovely view from the patio and tasting bar. Their Rose is an ideal wine in the heat of summer as are several of their red blends for winter that exude plum, dark berries, and soft tannins. Dinner is served at Finca Altozano, Javier Plascenica’s famed outdoor space featuring mutant sized barrels for kids to play in as well as a laundry list of wine options from all over Northern Baja. And yes, they have their own bakery and offer a plethora of Mexican favorites, including wood-fired local quail, beef cheek tacos, house made sausages and local Hamachi.
Last stop is brunch at La Cochina de Dona Estela’s. Let’s face it, there is no other place more authentic than Dona Estela’s. She has had to expand her restaurant literally into her corral of lamb where her signature dish is raised. Her mouth-watering specialty, Borrego Tatemado, is roasted lamb wood-fired in a clay oven and seared in a pan and only rivaled by her Machaca Con Huevo (spicy shredded beef with egg and onions). You will return to the Valle just for this meal! Or simply because when the lady herself stops by your table with heartfelt thanks and genuine love, you melt like butter. If you are stuck waiting for a table, never fear, there are some amazing honeys, hot sauces and jams to be purchased at a smoking deal with local vendors set up outside.
So, kick up your heels (the boot kind, these are dusty roads) and grab your passport. You are in for the ride of your life. Welcome to the next generation of rock star wines and over the top hospitality! Mexico is making her mark on the globetrotting wine world. Let’s give her the support she deserves!
Check out part 2 here!
For more information check out: https://www.bajanorte.com/en/wine-country/