Mexico makes some good wine. A few years ago I started to hear some whispers about a wine region south of the border. Being a committed practitioner (aka: winedrinker), I investigated. I was tickled to learn the location of said wine region: El Valle de Guadalupe en Baja California Norte, due South of San Diego. If you know of Ensenada, on the coast, the start of the Ruta Del Vino (wine route) in the valley is a mere 20 minutes inland. Easily reachable by car from the border and a breezy hour and a half from Tijuana, down the scenic Highway 1. You could fly into T.J. in the morning, rent a car and be sipping wine in Mexico’s principal wine region by noon. De verdad? Really, it is that easy.
Mexico has been making wine for ages
Though wine tourism in Mexico is newer, the tradition of vineyard cultivation and winemaking is deeply rooted and historic. Anyone have a guess as to which group of people introduced grapevines to Mexcio? If you recalled your colonization history and said “The Spanish”, you are correct. The Conquest brought vines and the realization that they did quite well in present day Mexico. In fact Mexico lays claim to the oldest winery in Las Americas (north, central and south), which is in the northern state of Coahuila. Founded in 1597 by Don Lorenzo Garcia, Casa Madero, is still operating in the Valley of Parras today. On my barrel list. #winegoals
Why El Valle de Guadalupe?
As colonizers do, The Spanish Crown became a bit testy with the wine production of the New World. Fearing competition with Spanish wines, they “shut the whole thing down”, except not really, because as we have learned from the experts, that never works. Missionaries continued to plant and grow grapes and make wine, specifically in the Baja region of The Valley of Guadalupe. The area proved to be rich in biodiversity, including grapes. Wine production continued throughout the centuries until Mexico’s liberal political and social revolution: La Reforma. A constitution was drafted which ended special privileges of the clergy and thus in 1857 the Catholic Church was stripped of its holdings, and therefore vineyards.
Since 1888, Mision de Santo Tomas, one of the former mission sites in El Valle de Guadalupe, now privately owned, became Bodegas Santo Tomas and still operates today. At the turn of the century, another mission site in that area was sold to a group of Molokans, a Russian colonist sect, with pacifist values who were seeking refuge from the war of the Czar. This group was initially drawn to Mexico for the agricultural prospects. Over 100 families settled in El Valle de Guadalupe from Russia, bringing with them a dedication to peaceful values and knowledge of farming practices. There is still one Russian owned winery in the Valle today, called Bibayoff.
What is this place?
Today, El Valle De Guadalupe, Mexico or VdeG, boasts well over a hundred wineries and counting! On our 2 trips thus far, we have managed to visit 15 of the tasting rooms. Much has been written about el Valle as the new or the next Napa. This is not Napa. This is Mexico. Muy diferente mi gente. Yet Napa has a reason to look over her shoulder. The innovative, eco-friendly and 21st Century spirit here is very appealing. Think hip and trendy. It is reflected in the décor, the approach and the young affluent crowd it entices. Pass the wine! VdeG is where the party is, and all are welcome. Don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself! Vamos a ver!
Why should you go to El Valle de Guadalupe?
When we first visited, I was hushed by just how panoramic and sweeping the landscape is. A stark contrast to the busy port town of Ensenada, where we bunked, arriving in El Valle was like sinking into your favorite comfy chair with a big glass merlot after a long day at work. It transports you to tranquility. It is still a pastoral setting, with horses dotting fields and crops of life springing forth. The sun is beaming, broken away from the marine layer of the foggy coastline. However the proximity to the sea beckons some maritime breezes and cuisine influences.
I have been to El Valle twice and yet to eat tacos. No disrespect to tacos but that would be like dining only on sandwiches in one of the gastronomic capitols of the U.S. There is a lot more going on. The food is predominantly farm-to-table, as there is so much local gardening and small-scale agriculture with a strong incorporation of fish and seafood. The style of cooking there is called campestres or “country style”. It denotes a casual way using wood fires as opposed to ovens and al fresco dining.
This is what we’re here for. It is rich, viscous and bursting with flavor. The area reflects a Mediterranean climate, on this side of warmer summers and colder winters. There is no specific variety that VdeG is most known for. Lots are doing Cabernet Sauvignon and I wonder if that has more to do with attempting to cater to consumers rather than having the most ideal terroir for it? I have enjoyed the Grenache, Syrah and blends of each and also Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. As there are no rules, many winemakers are experimenting. I would like to see more whites and rosé to accompany the sun-scorched days. And then there is the salt taste of the wine thing. You will detect it, and not in all the wines, but some have an almost briny characteristic. Minerality gone awry. The locals attribute it to the water. Other theories exist about the process of that winemakers are deploying or the type of soil variations from area to area.
You will see signs in the Valle advertising wine tasting as such. Dégustation is the careful, appreciative tasting of various foods, focusing on the gustatory system, the senses high culinary art and good company. If you are accustomed to winetasting in the U.S. where often the tasting fee is waived with a specified purchase, you will not see that here. We have tasted at 15 wineries and I have yet to observe such a policy. However, tastings are priced fairly, $5-$20, and run the range of reserve, entry level etc. It is all in pesos so check the exchange rate daily.
The list below is every place that we have tasted, linked to their internet presence and just a few impressions. I am open to being contacted directly to give feedback on any specific winery: email@example.com
Actually Espuma de Piedra, one of the projects of CdeP. We went to the outdoor sparkling wine and oyster bar, with food by Deckman's! No reservation needed.
This super modern space seemingly placed on the jagged hillside is an all inclusive, winery, restaurant and hotel. It is one of the last wineries on route 3 headed toward Tecate. We ate lunch at the restaurant and tasted some scrumptious wines, that had a bit of age (10 years). No reservation needed.
This is the largest wine producer in all the land. Land of Mexico that is. It was an experience. Jancis Robinson actually gave quite a fair review of it on her site. Enough said. No reservation needed.
This is a groovy winery! They do mostly blends and some fascinating ones at that, like Zinfandel, Grenache and Petit Verdot! Wha?! Si. The name means "alchemy" and they are expressing the elements through the wine: earth, wind, fire, water. The design of the building is quite eye-grabbing from the road, like a space-ship settled in on the property. No reservation needed.
With Catalan roots, this small winery produces many different blends, including one that is Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Small tasting room with gorgeous views! No appointment needed.
A favorite! A very established winery in the Valle, they have Italian roots, which is reflected in the varietals and expressions of the wine. Loved the Nebbiolo, Brunello and Rosso di Montefiori. No appointment needed.
A truly gorgeous space, complete with a full restaurant on-site, you can do a tour, a tasting or just soak up the sunshine on their gorgeous lawn. We ate lunch there and it was tremendous. The tasting is in a subterranean barrel room, cool and dark with comfy couches. El Cielo means sky in Spanish and this is reflected in the astronomical theme of the wines. They do some blends and mostly varietal wines of 100% Temranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. No appointment needed.
Sun and clay. The owner, with Swiss roots, built everything himself. The tiny tasting room is kept cool by the clay it is made of. A small-production, boutique winery, they have some lovely blends including one which is mostly Grenache with about 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. No appointment needed.
Wow! What a place. We thought we were lost and then came over a crest on the dirt road to see the expanse of Lomita. Beautiful property and wine! They also have a restaurant on the premises. The owner is committed to promoting Mexican artists, reflected in the intriguing label art and conversation pieces in the very stylish tasting room. The Pagano is 100% Grenache and full of ripe berries and an acidity meant for food pairing. The Sacro is a 50/50 Cab Sauv/Merlot blend, with a velvety texture. No appointment needed.
Named for the mystical Balché tree of the Mayan and in harmony with nature, this winery has tremendous offerings: Nebbiolo, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Grenache and Tempranillo, of the reds. They also have some whites, including a Chardonnay and some other blends. A full restaurant is on-site. No appointment needed.
This winery has one of the most panoramic views of the Valle. Perched up high, and down a long dirt road, it is worth the slow wobbly drive. They offer a young, reserve and premium, with price-points set accordingly. They utilize "carbonic maceration", or whole cluster pressing, in a gravity force process, which eliminates pumps. They have Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot of the reds. No appointment needed.
I was thrilled to finally try this winery. Having read so much about them, the story of Adobe Guadalupe is deeply moving. Founded originally as a horse ranch, they boast being one of the largest breeders of Raza Azteca horses. They also have a guest house and a food truck. The wine is luscious. The produce some gorgeous blends of various combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo, as well as a varietal Chardonnay and a rosé. No appointment needed.
This ultra modern and sleek tasting room also has far-reaching views of the splendor that is the Valle. Their "Los Nietos", a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, is award winning. They also make a Shiraz (a Syrah) and a Malbec, amongst others. No appointment needed.
One of the most revered in the Valle, Monte Xanic has a few options. You can taste by the lake, outdoors, or book a tour and tasting inside the winery, which we did. They make many different wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Malbec, and several whites, including their iconic Chenin Blanc and Colombard blend, which is rather refreshing on a late July afternoon in VdeG. The views are not to be missed. Reservation required for tour, not for wine tasting.
This boutique tasting room is not only for wine, but is also a microbrewery . We observed some happy cerveza tasters while there, however, we were strictly wine. They make many offerings and actually source some of the grapes from the nearby wine region of "ojos negros". A tranquil setting for adult beverages. No appointment needed.
Getting there: by car or by boat?
We went back and forth about how to approach the trip, the first time. A friend had extolled the merits of taking a 4-day cruise from the Los Angeles area, which ports in Ensenada for a day.
Pro: you can shuttle back mucho vino on the ship. Word to the wise: when driving across the U.S. border back into California, you are allotted a mere liter per person.
Con: you really don’t have enough time to go into the valley as you only have one day of port. Some of the wineries have tasting rooms in Ensenada so you can load up on product. But we really wanted to be in the valley, to commune with the people, getting a sense of place. So we decided to drive.
From where we live on The Monterey Peninsula, the drive to VdeG, is about 10 hours. We have some friends and family in Los Angeles so we decided to stop overnight for some visiting. This broke up the drive and we got to see folks we care about. A win-win. From Los Angeles, depending on what time of day you go is at least another solid 4.5-5 hours. We drove through the San Ysidro border station, just South of the San Diego/Chula Vista area. That is the precise moment that my phone morphed into an etch-a-sketch. Doh!
We lost Wi-Fi and subsequently cell service. The good news for us is that both Gabe and I had been manifesting this trip for so long that we had retained information in our brains: the original computers. I was able to recall some of the names of places I wanted to try and we eventually picked a free printed (gasp!) map.
Before you go….
- Cell service: check with your carrier ahead of time to see what they offer, rates, what you need to do
- Travel alerts: Let your bank and credit card companies know that you will be traveling out of the country.
- Passport: be sure to have it with you for re-entry.
- Reservations: some wineries are appointment only. If you do book ahead, and correspond in Spanish, be sure to note that you need a tour in English;) Learn from my mistake, or brush up on your Spanish.
If you are driving…
- Car insurance: We bought a policy on-line for the specific range of dates we traveled. Prices range based on your vehicle.
- Car care: for peace of mind, service your car before going, checking fluids, brakes, tire pressure etc.
- Tolls: if you take the scenic route (and really why, not?) there will be at least 3 tolls, based on your vehicle type. Our total was $6- for the 3. You can use pesos or dollars. Be sure to have some cash on hand for this purpose.
- Dirt roads: This is a reality and part of the rustic charm of El Valle. It will take a bit longer to get some places because you will be rolling at a slow creep on heavily pot-holed earthen roads. Sit back relax and enjoy the ride!
So many options! You could stay en the Valle or in Ensenada, which is only about a 20-minute drive, from the start of the Ruta del Vino in the San Antonio de las Minas vicinity. We have done both. It depends on what kind of experience you want. Ensenada is more of a city, so things are open later and there are more options. Also it is on the coast so you can take advantage of some communing with the ocean. El Valle has a plethora of hotel options, many affiliated with wineries and therefore offering additional perks. Most have restaurants on the premises, or near enough. Again, I am open to being contacted about either.
In Ensenada we stayed at Quintas Papagayo, or Parrot Farm. We saw no actual parrots. It was clean, and right on the coast. The restaurant affiliated is called Osho and it is surprisingly delicious. We ate one dinner and one breakfast there, during our stay, and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the service. And they have a nice wine list!
On our second trip to El Valle de Guadalupe, we actually stayed in San Antonio de Las Minas at the very picturesque and relaxing, Quinta Arratz. Embrace their slogan, "Relax at Arratz". With only 6 guest rooms, the grounds are perfectly coiffed and there is a pool! They also have a restaurant on the premises, though it closes at 5pm so check it out for breakfast or lunch. We loved it so much here that we already booked some days to return in the winter.
In conclusion, all I can say is El Valle de Guadalupe is a magical place. Go. Taste the wine, eat the food, soak up the sunshine! And do it now, as word is spreading. Viva el Valle!