On the Trail

mexican wine

Adventures in Valle de Guadalupe

mexican wineKate Soto
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Tranquilidad. Tranquilo.
I don’t know how to start talking about Baja California without bringing up this concept. Last week I spent three days in the Valle de Guadalupe for the annual Baja Uncorked conference—a joyous event that felt like sleepaway camp meets Roman bacchanal—where I learned about the community of winemakers, the grapes, the vineyards, the food, the architecture, and the wines themselves. But first I had to learn to let go. The itinerary was rough, the details scarce. The bus driver had no map (and got lost nearly every trip). But he was kind, and warm, and after a few trips I realized it didn’t matter. We would end up where we needed to be, and, when we arrived, there’d be plenty of wine, there’d be plenty of food and sun and scenery and other kind, warm people who wanted to chat. So I let go. I watched the scenery out of the bus window. I met whomever was sitting next to me. I thought about winemaking in this brave new world.

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Mexico has the oldest winemaking tradition in the Americas, apparently, beginning with the conquistadores in the 16th century. But, the explosion that’s happening in the wine scene—that’s very, very new. And, much like the landscape, the Valle de Guadalupe now exists in a hybrid canvas of old and new. Out the window of the bus I watched land pass by that very much resembled Southern California, where I’m from, if maybe a bit on steroids. The geology is relatively similar. The man-made structures are completely different. In the Valle, about 14 miles from Ensenada, we passed incredibly contemporary architecture, mostly geared toward the burgeoning hospitality industry—tourist cabanas in concrete egg fermenters, for instance; a winery made from an overturned ship—to haphazardly built wooden shacks covered in dried banana leaves. It’s clearly an area where there’s a dissonance between the new and the old—and that adds to its charm. It’s only in the last half dozen years, maybe more, that the Valle has truly exploded into a tourist mecca. The winemaking and the gastronomy scenes have grown hand in hand with the tourism industry. In fact, most wineries have a restaurant and many also have lodging. For enotourism, it’s a dream. The views are stunning, the weather is warm and breezy, and the food is out of this world. We had dishes such as blowfish tacos and broccoli mole and sopes that made my mouth ecstatic. More seafood than I can remember.

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And the wines—a truly varied bunch in terms of grapes, style, and quality—were made to go with the food. The best ones truly did. It’s hard to summarize the style with so much variation happening, but a few things you can say for sure: they have no trouble getting grapes ripe and tannins tend to be soft (even reds work well chilled), which works well with spicier food and hot days. There’s also an interesting saline quality to both reds and whites, with different theories about its origin—could be the influence of the ocean, which is only about 20 miles away. One winemaker told me that certain grapes give off a salinity under stress, and, with an extreme drought, it’s fair to say these grapes are under stress. The Pacific provides fog and cool nights, but water is a huge factor for the future of the Valle. So, the winemakers are under their own stress, too.

Since there are absolutely no laws governing how the wines are made (except a tax on any ABV level above 14%), and there’s a general spirit of experimentation, you can find about 125 different grapes growing there. Nebbiolo is a common red varietal, and that left me a bit flabbergasted, considering how different the climate is where it comes from. There was some scuttlebutt about a “Mexican Nebbiolo” clone being different from the Italian. When pressed, a winemaker admitted that the strain of Nebbiolo they are using can actually be traced back to Lambrusco! Which, honestly, makes more sense. A few winemakers have more recently brought over Italian Nebbiolo, and it’s more dark and brooding than the Mexican Nebbiolo, which is super cherried. Chenin Blanc is a popular grape on the white side of things. Henri Lurton makes a very good example of one that captures freshness and the purity of the varietal but also the salinity of the region.

There are winemakers from all over the world, some with a lot of experience, and some making their first vintages. But if there’s one winemaker who’s going to revolutionize Mexican wine, it’s Lourdes Martinez Ojeda, or Lulu, from Bodegas Henri Lurton. She comes from one of the 13 founding families in the Valle, and spent 10 years working with Henri Lurton at Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux before convincing him to invest in Baja. She helped start Bodegas Henri Lurton, and is also the winemaker for several other wineries. She is dynamic, talented, and has the technical know-how to make the finest wines in Baja while capturing a completely unique expression of its terroir. The fact that she’s also a mother of two young kids served to just increase my awe for this woman all the more. Across the board her wines were my favorite of the trip. In addition to Bodegas Henri Lurton, I tried two of her wines from Bruma--a Sangiovese rose’ and a Chardonnay—both fresh and pure, and more interestingly, a rose from the Mission grape made at the Palafox winery. Mission was the first grape planted in Mexico, and the first vitis vinifera in the New World (planted in 1540). By 1620 it had moved to Baja California. It’s vigorous, productive, and tolerant of drought. It’s also been much maligned over the years as being musky, but in Lulu’s hands it’s capable of a highly elegant expression. It’s funky, don’t get me wrong, with a golden raisin, beeswax, and mint character on the nose, but also a dry, lifted finish and bright acid. It’s delicious. I also tried a white, no-skin contact Mission from Santo Tomas that evinced a similar golden raisin, honeyed character but a balanced, dry finish. I think Mission could really be a uniquely Mexican contribution to the wine world (in the right hands).

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The winemaker from Casa de Piedras called Baja California “an El Dorado,” saying “options are as big as huge Mexican sombreros.” And that’s really accurate. There’s an intoxicating energy here to make great wine and to get the word out. I spoke with Kristin Magnussen, the winemaker at Lechuza (who’s also a mom and a very pregnant, very passionate spokesperson for the Valle), and she said that when her family started out in the early 2000s, there were maybe 35 wineries in the Valle. Now there are over 200, and she has a wine on the French Laundry’s menu. Things are happening here. And, much like you hear about Napa and other regions when starting out, these folks are in it together, realizing that when one succeeds, they all do. It’s a beautiful time to visit, with so much energy and imagination and experimentation and hospitality, and I hope you all do. In the meantime, try the wines!

- Kate Soto