MEXICO’S BAJA REGION VIES FOR ATTENTION ON THE WORLD STAGE AS WINEMAKERS CHANGE THIS REGION’S IMAGE AS THE LAND OF TEQUILA AND BEER
By Thomas J. Reagan Jr.
The mere suggestion that there could be a spot for wine on Mexico’s list of quality libations might raise a few eyebrows. But contrary to what many believe, wine is nothing new South of the Border and there are a number of winemakers reviving viticulture in the land where Spanish explorers planted vines hundreds of years ago. As their wines increase in quality and notoriety, these winemakers threaten a New Mexican Revolution, which is gaining a considerable number of believers North of the Border and beyond.
“What is so fantastic about the Mexican wine growing regions is that the vineyards are easy to access on day trips from Ensenada, with time to return each evening to hone wine and food pairing skills at one of the many great restaurants,” says Al Boyce, who for the better part of three decades has visited and studied the northern Baja peninsula. Wine production in Mexico almost exclusively comes from three areas in the northern part of Baja, California, near the Mexican city of Ensenada.
Boyce notes that progress of every kind is apparent in the region. Good roads and highways, better education, improved economy and first-class hotels and restaurants exceed the demands of the most seasoned traveler. While recent improvements push back the once shoddy image of many Mexican industries, the Baja Peninsula’s heritage has not been forsaken by developers. Everything from architecture to local culture remains distinctly Mexican. But perhaps the most impressive chapter in this success story is the wine.
THE BIG THREE Driving to wine country in the Guadalupe and Calafia valleys from Ensenada provides insight into why winemaking has undergone such a positive transformation in the past 30 years and why the past 10 years have been so dramatic. Well-tended vineyards and modern advancements in viticulture are obvious. Three wineries anchored the industry during the tough times and continue their important leadership role. In the Calafia Valley, Viños L.A. Cetto and neighbor Viños Pedro Domecq tend a sea of vines of all varieties as does Bodegas de Santo Tomás in the more southern Santo Tomás Valley. All have won acclaim in international competitions, including two medals taken by Bodegas de Santo Tomás at this year’s VinoChallenge International in Atlanta.
In the L.A. Cetto tasting room, we met the affable Alahandro, who was pouring behind the bar. He began with the the Chauvenet-Valle de Guadalupe, which produces blanco (white), rosado (rosé) and tinto (red). All were fruity, well-made and finished with a clean essence on the palate. We were mildly impressed until Alahandro mentioned that it retailed in the U.S. for a mere $3. Our appraisal quickly changed to wildly impressed.
Christian MacKay, the assistant winemaker there, happened by and began a tasting of each wine in L.A. Cetto’s line, including the 2001 Reserva Limitada Chardonnay, 1996 and 1997 Nebbiolos, 2000 and 2001 Reserva Privada Chardonnay and a fine 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. “We are improving the quality of the wine [by] improving the quality of our grapes, while continuing with traditional winemaking,” says MacKay.
The Bodegas de Santo Tomás tasting room in Ensenada, presents the same hospitality and positive attitude. “Our wine is good; it will speak for itself,” says Medardo Barreda, who manages L.A. Cetto’s tasting room. “But how do you get the first sip in the [customer’s] glass?”
At Viños Domecq, three labels make up its portfolio, including Old World and New World style wines and highend premium red and white blends. Our tasting there took on a different twist as winemaker José Louis Durand Zúñiga, marketing director Carlos Pease and public relations manager Ana Luisa Suárez put this visitor to work. Experiencing a hands-on tour of the winery, or “Domecq 101” as it came to be known, we participated in everything from barrel washing to setting up an informative slide show. After such an intensive, back-breaking appreciation, it’s clear that Domecq sets high the bar for quality with an eye toward a more commanding presence in the world wine market.
SETTING STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE The “Big Three” wineries may provide good, affordable wine for the mass market, but the small wineries are providing the enthusiasm in sophisticated wine circles. These elite vintners are elevating the quality and the reputation of Mexican wine, As the excitement grows, several wineries and winemakers are well on their way to achieving cult status.
Hugo D’Acosta at Casa de Piedra, whose first vintage was in 1997, is the standard-bearer for the small boutique wineries in the valley. The unique winery is new, but looks old and was designed to look like a stone house as the winery name implies. “We wanted to keep it simple,” says Hugo, “like our wine.” While the winery makes a subdued architectural statement, the “simple” wines, as it turns out, are elegant and concentrated.
Casa de Piedra produces only two wines: a white, Piedra de Sol, made from Chardonnay grapes grown in high-density vineyards, and a red, Viño de Piedra, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Production currently sits at 1,250 cases, which D’Acosta hopes will soon double, as he is optimistic about the future of Mexican vines, especially the old vines he’s bringing back to productive life. “Old vines planted many years ago by the Russian emigrants may take on a new life…. The roots go very deep on these head-pruned plants and they are better adapted to the arid conditions. They could make beautiful wine,” smiles D’Acosta.
A LITTLE BORDEAUX IN MEXICO Located a short distance away at Viña de Liceaga, Edwardo Liceaga concentrates on making red wines that are dignified, classic and gracefully layered. The 2001 Cabernet Franc with hints of ground pepper and smoke is drinking well and the 1999 Viña Liceaga Grand Reserva is a show stopper with great depth of flavor.
Deeper into the Valle de Guadalupe is the small town of Francisco Zarco. Driving down the bumpy, unpaved road toward wineries Château Camou and Monte Xanic is like stepping into an old Mexican movie set. Horses, goats, dogs and people roam the streets and on both sides of the road, houses and buildings have an authentic “well-worn look.”
Entering Château Camou at the edge of town, dusty clay gives way to lush green. Winemaker Dr. Victor Torres is one of the fathers of the wine revolution in Mexico and his Bordeaux-style wines reflect his time at the University of Bordeaux, where he obtained his doctorate in enology. “One of the miracles here at Château Camou is the presence of very old vines; many over 60 years old–they are our treasure,” says Fernando Favela, whose family owns the winery. Jesus Rivera oversees this entire process with fanatical pride and guards the esteemed reputation of the winery, whose bottles grace the tables at haute cuisine restaurants throughout the U.S.
ICE WINE AND BEYOND Another star leading the quality charge is winemaker Hans Backhoff of Monte Xanic. The winery produces a Calixa line offering high quality, oakaged white and red varieties at a reasonable price. There’s also the premium or Monte Xanic line. The biggest surprise, however, comes from Backhoff’s Mexican ice wine. He found the nearby refrigerated lockers used by the local fishing industry perfect for freezing the grapes despite the Mediterranean-like climate.
While Mexican ice wine may seem a little out of place, so too did the idea of producing wine in Mexico, period. To the chagrin of skeptical critics, the commitment by Mexican winemakers to produce quality wine is paying off. A growing number of wines now compete with top-tier winemaking regions around the world. And the best is yet to come, as is evidenced by the enthusiasm, dedication and confidence found throughout the Baja Peninsula. Says Christian MacKay of L.A. Cetto Winery: “With over 100 international awards, we are showing the wine drinkers of the world our best. Our wine is great; we only need to spread the word.”
A freelance writer and retired international airline captain, Thomas J. Reagan Jr. travels extensively seeking great wines of the world. This article, originally published on www.winesimple.com.