Which valley? Napa Valley? No. Try the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) in Mexico.
Mexican wine. You heard me correctly. Mexican. Wine. Yes, our neighbor to the south produces more than just the world’s finest tequila. Just a couple of hours south of the California/Mexico border, in the state of Baja California, Mexico, and 14 miles north of Ensenada lies the Valle de Guadalupe. As 90% of Mexico’s wine is produced in Baja California, this wine region has become the prevailing wine region not just on the peninsula but nationally.
Often described as the Napa Valley or Tuscany of Mexico, the Valle de Guadalupe region runs from the Pacific coast in the southwest and extends approximately 20 miles (32 km) to the northeast. It has a strong Mediterranean climate due to its location on the peninsula with the Pacific Ocean directly to the west and the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) to the east. From the ocean, the land juts up drastically and the vineyards are planted at an altitudes between 1000 and 1250 feet (305-380m).
The indigenous varietals planted here centuries ago were not quite suited to wine production so the vast majority of wine is made from European varietals. The region is mostly a red wine region (almost ¾ of total production) with the remainder white and a very small percentage of rosé. French, Spanish, and Italian grapes abound in the valley. Red wines are made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and Petite Sirah while the white wines are made primarily from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard.
Driving in Mexico can be tricky, from bad roads to poor signage to potentially long border waits. If you live in or near San Diego (or Southern California) you may decide to make the trek yourself. But why drive when you can have someone else who knows the area drive for you?! For me, it was an easy decision. Enter Baja Winery Tours. From start to finish this company was top notch and, in my opinion, incredibly reasonably priced given what you get in return. For less than $200 you get roundtrip transportation to/from the Valle de Guadalupe (from San Diego) with an expert guide and will visit three world-class Baja wineries, enjoy a sit-down gourmet lunch at a top-rated Valle de Guadalupe restaurant, and never have to worry about drinking and driving.
We started our tour in San Diego around 9am and headed to the border in the incredibly capable hands of Joaquin (one of two owners of the tour company). A beautiful drive along scenic Highway 1 followed, and in less than two hours our group was scurrying into our first stop anxiously awaiting our first taste of Mexican wine. Contemporary and hip facilities coupled with modern techniques are becoming commonplace in the valley and Hacienda La Lomita is one winery at the forefront of that trend. Founded in 2005 by two lifelong friends, La Lomita produces white, rosé, and red wines ranging from crisp and subtle to bold and smoky. We tasted four wines here: Espacio en Blanco (Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc); Espacio en Blanco (Chardonnay); Cursi (Garnacha rosé); and Pagano (Garnacha) – my clear favorite at this stop (and a close overall second on the trip).
We then made our way to La Lomita’s sister winery, Finca la Carrodilla. An outdoor garden perched above winemaking facilities acts as the winery’s primary tasting/seating area. There is also a small tasting room inside, but I highly recommend sitting outside as the ambience is fantastic! Here they practice ecological and biodynamic viticulture and produce organic wines. Uber-friendly and attentive folks poured four wines for our group: Espacio en Blanco (the same Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc blend served at La Lomita); Canto de Luna (Tempranillo/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend aged in oak for three months); a Tempranillo (aged 12 months in oak) – my favorite wine of the day (as many of you know I’m partial to Tempranillo); and a Cabernet Sauvignon (also aged in oak for 12 months). Finca la Carrodilla is a must visit!
Ready to partake of what was rumored to be some of most amazing food in the valley, we loaded up for a visit to one of Tijuana-born chef Javier Plascencia’s top-rated restaurants – Finca Altozano. All I can say is, “Wow!” Seated in the outdoor area (the majority of the seating is outdoors under a galvanized metal roof) we were treated to lunch Baja-Mediterranean style. Grilled octopus, monster roasted Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, soup, wood-fired quail, to-die-for lamb, and more wine (the additional wine was not included in the tour cost). Absolutely incredible and worth the trek to this out-of-the-way hot spot.
Full from our amazing lunch, but with still just enough room for more wine, we headed to our final stop of the day – Las Nubes Bodegas y Viñedos. This winery is quite popular and was the most crowded of the three visited. Las Nubes means “the clouds” and characterizes your viewpoint from the hillside looking out over the Guadalupe Valley. Given the magnificent views and quality of the wine it is easy to understand why it is a popular destination. Owner Victor Segura has been making wine here since 2008 and is producing some of the valley’s favorite wines. We were treated to six wines (I think we scored a bonus one): Kuiiy (Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay); Jaak (Garnacha/Carignan/Zinfandel rosé); Selección de Barricas (Carignan/Garnacha/Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo); Colección de de Parcelas (a proprietary blend); Cumulus (Garnacha/Carignan/Tempranillo); and Nimbus (Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo).
The wines of the Valle de Guadalupe are unique, complex, and are very characteristic of their terroir. Forget whatever preconceived ideas you may have about wine from Mexico as they are likely incorrect. I am now a fan. My first experience in the Valle de Guadalupe will certainly not be my last. As a matter of fact, on July 23, 2016, I will joining hundreds of other cyclists for the second annual Ruta del Vino Bike Ride & Wine Festival. This 36-mile bike ride through the Guadalupe Valley culminates in a wine festival that pairs the region’s best wine makers with award-winning local chefs.
Looking for something new and different? Then give the Valle de Guadalupe a try. It is well worth the time and effort!