Discovering the Baja California Wine Region
Published in San Diego Woman Magazine, March 2008
By Robin Dohrn-Simpson
“You go to the house with the three green arches and turn right, follow the dirt road, through the vineyards, cross the stream then follow the signs of the Kremlin. After about two miles you’ll see some large trees, that is the Russian Winery. You can’t miss it.” This is how it is winetasting in Guadalupe Valley just outside of Ensenada, Baja, Mexico.
So, we head off down the dirt road in what we hope is the right way from the directions we have just received in Spanish. It is fall and the grapes have just been harvested, however there is still some greenery remaining filling out the rows upon rows of vines. The valley sprawls for several miles and the surrounding brown hills are dotted with olive trees. The valley floor explodes with fall colors; rust, orange, magenta and forest green. We have come to enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
The Baja California Wine Country is a short 65 miles south of San Diego and 10 miles northeast Ensenada and the Pacific coast. The Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) is well marked with signs posted along the highway directing you to different wineries. The area is comprised of three valleys: Calafia, Guadalupe and San Antonio de las Minas and boasts 19 charming and diverse wineries. These wineries range from small boutique-style family businesses to large industrialized operations.
Wines are not new to Mexico. Winemaking dates back to the Spanish conquistadors, who then banned their cultivation. In the late 1800’s, the vintners began to resurface and were pleased with how the grapes adapted to the climate of Baja California. For a long time the wines were pretty awful, but in the past twenty years this has changed. The current new wave of this industry is still in its infancy. Winemakers come from Argentina, Europe and the United States to create tasty and award winning wines.
The varieties of red wine produced in the Baja California region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet, Zinfandel Grenache and Mission. The white wines are Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Saint Emilion and Malaga. Wine in the Guadalupe Valley is an international affair. Only 1% of the Mexican population drink wine, therefore most wines are exported, both to the United States and to Europe.
The wine world in Baja is unique unto itself, not trying to be Tuscan or Californian. The architecture of the wineries in Baja is classic Mexican with white walls, sharp-angled buildings and plenty of red brick arches lining walkways. One of my favorite buildings, the Adobe Guadalupe Winery and B&B was designed by Nassir Haghighat, a Persian architect. It is both Mexican with a white façade, terra cotta tile roof and arches in the front while at the same time showing the influence of what one imagines desert architecture of the Middle East to look like.
Our first stop of the day is Casa Pedro Domecq Winery, a large establishment that can handle big groups. There is a bus in the parking lot when we arrive. We chat with some people and find that they are on a day trip from the cruise boat that has docked in Ensenada for the day. The tasting room is large and spacious with two walls of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Calafia Valley. It is designed to handle many people at one time. There are many groupings of comfortable chairs to sit and relax and taste wine. The winemaker here is Argentinian. They are tasting their Califia label wines today with their table wines: Tinto and Blanco
Chateau Camou is “just down the street”, so we decide to pop over there, only stopping twice for directions. This lovely family owned winery has rows and rows of wine barrels lining the walkway to the tasting area. We are immediately charmed. Although the tasting room attendant doesn’t speak a lot of English we are able to communicate in the language of wine. We are treated to a 10 year old Chardonnay that astounds us. It is rich, buttery and very complex.
Next we’re off to the Russian winery: Bibayoff. The daughter is hosting the bar here today. She speaks passable English and we share a common language of hmms, yumms, and smacking lips as we taste their wonderful reds. Many Russians immigrated to Mexico a century ago and have assimilated into the culture. Who knew! This small and humble winery has bold and powerful Cabernet and Moscatel wines.
Our last stop of the day is at Vinisterra Winery. This is a husband and wife operation. They are both hosting the bar today. When we arrive late in the afternoon, the tasting area is full of a group of bicyclers who are on a day tour from the cruise line. We enjoy tasting in what was the family home for many generations. It is made with local red brick, has arches in the patio and has a green grassy area where there is a barbecue and a covered patio for al fresco dining.
They have three labels of wine. Their lower end is Domino (affectionately named after their domino games in the patio while sipping wine). The mid level brand is Macouzet, which is the wife’s family name. Their high end brand is Vinisterra. The Swiss winemaker, Christopher Gartner, is very accomplished and has created many lovely, drinkable wines. His philosophy, we were told, is that since Americans who go there can only bring back a small amount of alcohol, they will instead opt to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy while in Mexico enjoying their visit. So, his wines are created more with the intent of drinking now instead of laying down for a few years to age.
Mr. Rodriguez, the co-proprietor proudly takes on a short tour of the production and storage building that is located on what was once the family tennis court. It is constructed of thermal materials and is partially buried in the ground to assist in keeping the insides a moderate temperature for aging wine. He proudly shows us their stainless steel fermenting tanks, and rows and rows of American and French oak barrels. There is a tasting room that is being constructed in this building. I, for one, will be sad when I cannot taste wine in the kitchen of the family’s home, as it is quaint and homey- two factors that I love in wine tasting.
There was a time, only a few short years ago, when drinking wine from Baja wasn’t considered by serious wine lovers in Southern California.
But Yvonne Stern of San Diego says “These wines rival some of the best California wines I have enjoyed.”
After a day of wine-tasting, you’ll probably be hungry. The Ruta del Vino has twelve local restaurants serving gourmet and regional cuisine, Mexican- style meals with an Arabic flavor, seafood, international cuisine and one even specializes in ostrich, quail and deer.
There is still one problem in the Baja wine industry, and that is, if you are driving into Mexico you can only bring back 1 liter of wine per person, every 30 days. However, if you are visiting Mexico on a cruise you can bring back 6 cases of wine. That is definitely incentive to take a weekend cruise to Ensenada and a day tour of the wineries.
“It’s a bit more rustic than Napa or Paso Robles.” I told my friends, who were joining me for a day of exploring. “But it’s worth it.” I assure them. After a day of winetasting they were happily surprised at the quality of the wines. “We only have one question,” my traveling companions say “when are we coming back?”