Mexico is well known for its alcoholic offerings -- from beer and tequila to the newly hip mescal. But the Baja California peninsula is now home to a thriving wine region, part of a gastronomic revolution that is helping to turn the area into a gourmet destination.
Once the playground of coed partiers on spring break, Baja California is now attracting serious foodies like a recent tour group headed to the Valle de Guadalupe, the Mexican mecca of fine wine.
The Mediterranean climate of the Valle de Guadalupe makes it a good location for growing Spanish and Italian varietals like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
The valley is located just inland from the beach town of Ensenada, among picturesque rolling hills dotted with cacti. The winding dirt roads pass by cattle ranches and stands touting artisanal farmhouse cheese and fresh eggs. Such pastoral charms lead to inevitable comparisons to the Napa Valley of 30 years ago.
But there’s nothing rustic about the tour’s first stop, Las Nubes winery. It’s a state of the art facility, built like a Tuscan fortress with a view over the entire valley. Open since 2008, it’s been producing a roster of about a dozen wines from almost as many different varietals -- from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Tempranillo and Sangiovese.
“You can taste the soul, you can taste that passion for winemaking,” said tour-goer Marco Montes, who purchased several bottles.
Americans on a wine and food tour enjoy a glass of Palomino at JC Bravo winery in Valle de Guadalupe.
Day-tripping tourists aren’t the only ones taking notice. These wines are gaining recognition even among the rarefied ranks of wine critics, like longtime Wine Spectator columnist James Suckling, who has championed Mexican wine for its unique earthiness and saline character.
“They have things like Nebbiolo or Carignan - grape varieties that we’re less familiar with,” he said.
Right now 90 percent of the wines produced in Mexico stay there. But the potential for market growth domestically is limited. On average, Mexicans drink only half a liter of wine per person per year, while Americans drink nearly 20 times as much.
“That is for us our main focus - the U.S. market,” said Mariana Martinez de Velasco of Monte Xanic winery. “Just to have people know that there is Mexican wine.”
The best way to introduce them, says de Velasco, is tourism, an industry that has taken a major hit in recent years due to concerns over ongoing drug violence and long lines at the border. The wait can be as long as three or four hours, according to market research consultant Kenn Morris.
Las Nubes winery produces more than a dozen wines from almost as many varietals. The Valle de Guadalupe has yet to find its signature grape so styles vary widely from Spanish-style Rioja to Italian blends and single varietal wines like Cabernet Sauvignan.
“And so it’s that question mark. People are saying, ‘Is it worth it for me to drive a certain number of minutes, a certain number of hours to get to the border and then be stuck for three hours?’” he said.
And even once you make it to the front of the line, there’s more bad news. California residents have the unfortunate distinction of being allowed to bring only one liter of wine across the border with them.
Nonresidents, like wine critic Suckling, can bring up to five cases, though actually doing so was not an easy process.
“I was basically held in detention in the secondary checkpoint of the border for over three hours,” Suckling said. “They searched my car and said we would be strip-searched if we didn’t follow their instructions. It was quite a hairy experience.”
Consumers in California can now order many of the wines online through an importer. And importers will soon stock the shelves of several major grocery chains.
But if you’re the impatient type, you could always try your luck at the border, like tourist Marco Montes.
Victor Segura, winemaker and partner at Las Nubes, stands on the patio of the winery overlooking the Valle de Guadalupe.
He purchased six bottles of wine in Mexico and distributed them among the tour group while crossing back into San Diego.
“We’re back in the U.S. and we have great wine from Mexico,” he said triumphantly. “It was a great day.”