Bordeaux in Baja: The Rise of Mexico's Wine Region
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The nearby Italian-owned Villa Montefiori's focus is on estate-grown Italian varieties, using rootstock from France and Italy. Located six miles from the ocean at located 1,300 feet up from the valley floor they have 12 varieties in the ground including Nebbiolo, Barbera and Tempranillo and they too have a wide expanse from their property in which to take in the Valley.
Hacienda La Lomita and their modern holistic tasting room reflect the changes underway in Baja's wine region. The three-story gravity fed open-air facility perched on a hill uses native yeasts and estate fruit, avoiding insecticides, herbicides and pesticides to craft wines that can rival California. Aiming for production of 4,000 cases, one of their flagship wines is Pagano, a beautiful Grenache from 55 year-old vines. Like Las Nubes and Villa Montefiori you can sample wines inside, or better yet relax on the outdoor decks.
Don Miller of Adobe Guadalupe released his first wine in 2003. Miller originally bought 39 acres in the Valley but has expanded to 64. They focus on Bordeaux and Italian varieties for blending, and typical Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wines which are uniformly excellent. Their brick lined tasting room is just feet from a sea of vines.
EatCorazon de Tierra, a restaurant on the site of Vena Cava Winery is elevating the quality and presentation of local foods which means you can't find much fresher than this. Using clean flavors and beautiful presentations with herbs and vegetables straight from the garden outside, they are indicative of the changes happening here. Gone are the days of traditional taquitos and burritos and in its place is thoughtful foods, mainly sourced locally from the Valley itself or the Pacific where an abundance of seafood, including oysters are harvested. The portions are on the smaller side but you can include wine pairings.
Finca Altozano as well has captured the best of the area with its open-air restaurant exposing everyone to fresh seafood and the stunning views of the Valley. An open grill to one side, views all around and a packed house on a warm summer night with a chilled glass of local rose is all you need. From lamb tacos to octopus tostadas, and roasted local chicken this is casual and a place to wile away the hours.
If seafood is your preference, Barra Azul in Ensenada does excellent fish, including marlin carpaccio, octopus ceviche, and they have a complete oyster bar. Or for sauteed crickets, a delicacy in Mexico, head to La Diferencia in Tijuana. While there also try La Coche, or "corn smut," a fungus that's allowed to grow on ears of corn. It has more in common with the taste of truffles and is served on homemade tortillas with smoky ranch-style beans.
StayHotel Coral and Marina in Ensenada is the best lodging in order to access the wineries in the Guadalupe Valley and it's located right on the ocean. Not only are the prices fantastic for the large rooms, but every room faces the ocean with average pricing under $200. They provide a shuttle which will get you to downtown Ensenada, or, if you live in Southern California, they can pick you up where you live and drive you to the hotel, thereby having little to do with crossing the border. Of course, you can also boat in. This traditional, large hotel caters to wine tourists with vans and shuttles taking people out to the Guadalupe Valley for the day. Their massive breakfast buffet is the only way to start a day of wine tasting. There are places to stay in the Valley however you are limited in terms of isolation and given this is largely an agricultural area, there's not much to do after dark.
Is It Safe?With all the news reports about violence in the region (some of it reported accurately, some of it not) the question I constantly hear is, is it safe to travel to Mexico? The answer is yes. You must use caution, but you should do that anywhere you travel. Stay in populated areas and don't wander down dark alleys at odd hours to visit some hole-in-the-wall; don't flaunt your cash, and stick with highly public places. Americans are very welcomed here, and you will be too.
If you drive into the Guadalupe Valley stay on the main roads as some of the smaller side roads, while safe, are pretty beat up. Winery signage is a mixed bag so it's best to know where you want to go in advance and bring your map with you. Cell service is very spotty in the Valley so make sure you've got food and water with you and a full tank of gas.
For more information on visiting Baja go to Baja.com
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Michael Cervin is the author four Moon travel books, and two travel blogs He is the contributing travel writer, and restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press. Notable publications include Decanter Magazine, Westways, Wine Enthusiast, Skywest, The Writer, Wine & Spirits, Food & Beverage World, and more than 80 others. He also contributes to NPR, and is a regular travel expert on the award-winning Around the World Radio, and The Big Blend's Vacation Station.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author