Just got back from wine country in Baja California, Mexico. The drive to wine country in Mexico is about 4 hours south from Los Angeles, if you don’t get caught in traffic. I drove down last weekend in a white Jeep Commander with a couple of friends, included movie director/writer James Orr and John Gray, a chef with three restaurants in Cancun, Mexico. They were also in my blog on Mexican wine , "Garagistas, Amigos y Amor en Mexico," on February 18.
The hairiest part about the drive is getting through the border town of Tijuana, which in recent months has been on military alert due a war the Mexican government has declared on the drug cartel there. But we didn’t see anything, and we weren’t looking for trouble in "TJ," where there’s a lot of bad--and good--stuff, depending on what you're looking for.
It’s a weird feeling, crossing the border and driving into the third world. To me, a lot of the scenery feels the same whether you’re in a small tobacco town in Nicaragua or the capital of Cameroon. It’s always dusty, with run down buildings, clapped out cars and stray dogs. But the urban blight only lasted for a half an hour or so of our journey. We picked up a wine merchant friend from Monterrey, Mexico -- Humberto Falcon -- at the Tijuana airport, and sped through the bowels of the city.
We were soon on a four-lane toll road traveling south down the Pacific coast of Baja California, which is a beautiful coastline with some amazing surf beaches and breathtaking cliffs falling into the deep blue Pacific. I remember trying a number of those beaches in my teens with buddies from Newport Harbor High School. We used to cruise down in our Volkswagen vans and camp out and surf. I am not sure I ever told my parents where we were going! But those are old stories. Last weekend was a new one.
Besides, it wasn’t the perfect wave we were looking for on this trip. We were looking for great wine. Yes, the stuff that great climate and soil produces, and I am convinced that Baja California can do it. In fact, it already has. It might be one of the last untapped great wine regions left in the world. And it’s changing quickly. It’s still like Napa Valley circa 1965, but it’s moving forward at a pace of about five years to the year. I first came to this part of Baja in 1988, when two big producers--Domecq and La Cetto-- made most of the wine. Just 10 years ago, there were only a dozen or so wineries. Now there are close to 50. And there are close to 5,000 acres of vines in the area. Every time I go there (the last time was in May 2004), it seems to change.
The main wine region is about a half an hour’s drive east from the port of Ensenada. You drive over a small coastal mountain range and descend into an agricultural valley that looks like parts of Napa or Sonoma County. Last weekend, the hills and fields were lush and green, like the countryside in Ireland or England in the spring. The small paved road winds through tiny towns like San Antonio, El Tigre, El Porvenir, and Francisco Zarco. I began thinking, as I drove our Jeep, about similar rural villages in Bordeaux, like Margaux, Arsac, or St. Julien. They are all sleepy places, almost lost in time, but they continue to produce wine year in and year out. (In fact, I will be driving through the Médoc in a week, tasting the 2007s from barrel. So stay tuned.)
We stopped for a moment to check out some of the vines near the town of Franciso Zarco. They were amazing. I was speechless. They were gnarly, ancient head-pruned Grenache vines, about 50 to 60 years old. And the area still has hundreds of acres planted to them, although a lot were pulled out in the early 2000s, due to a drastic drop in grape prices. Look at the video. It was shot on a windy Sunday morning when we left. (If you notice the improvement in the video quality, thank my director buddy Orr!)
Humberto had organized most of our weekend trip, and our first stop was a late lunch with Hugo d’Acosta, the owner of what many view as Baja’s best winery, Casa de Piedra. But he has done so much more. He is the spiritual leader of fine winemaking in the region and he has dozens of disciples, from small growers in the region to restaurateurs wanting to make wine for their eateries. We broke bread and drank wine together for the rest of the afternoon.
Here are my tasting notes and non-blind scores from the wines tasted over lunch:
2007 Casa de Piedra Chardonnay: Aromas of sliced green apples and limes follow through to a medium body, with bright acidity and a clean, crisp finish. This is bottled a few months after fermentation. Little simple. 86 points, non-blind.
2005 Acrata: This means anarchy in Spanish. It’s 95 percent Grenache with a touch of Petit Sirah. This shows beautiful fruit with plum, berry and jammy aromas and flavors. The dominant wood character soon melts into the palate and finishes long and flavorful. This is made from old vine, head-pruned Grenache. Outstanding 90, non-blind.
2005 Fecha: This means date in Spanish. Aromas of cherries, berries and flowers. Full and very polished, with super fine tannins and a long, long finish ... Such beautiful fruit. From ancient Carignan vines. 91, non-blind.
2006 Fecha: So floral. This is ultra-refined with polished tannins and a long, long finish. Full yet reserved, with beautiful fruit and complexity, minerals and red fruit. Long. 93, non-blind.
2005 Piel de Luna: Pretty jam and berry aromas follow through to a full body, with candied fruit and lipstick character. Falls a little short. This never has seen wood. Instead, it is held and decanted a half a dozen times from demi-john. 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Petite. Sirah. Home winemaking. 86, non-blind.
We sat on the hillside overlooking the valley full of vines, and the sunset. Hugo, who’s turning 50 this year, spoke of the area, its wines and his life. He’s a man with spirit and presence. He’s a man with a vision for the winemaking in the region. He is, if you will, the Robert Mondavi of Baja.
“You can do whatever you want, but you can’t change Baja California,” he said as we sat almost in darkness talking about the future of winemaking in his region. The brisk cold wind was blowing off the hillsides yet I was warm inside from the conversation. “You are like a surfer and you have to take the wave. You don’t have to go fast or slow. You just catch it ...”
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — March 17, 2008 9:04pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler Me — Monterrey, Mexico — March 17, 2008 9:34pm ET
James Suckling — — March 17, 2008 9:38pm ET
Juan Morales — Monterrey NL Mexico — March 17, 2008 11:39pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 18, 2008 1:06am ET
James Suckling — — March 18, 2008 10:23am ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — March 18, 2008 11:36am ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 18, 2008 2:42pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — March 18, 2008 7:01pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler Me — Monterrey, Mexico — March 18, 2008 8:57pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 19, 2008 12:18am ET
Monticello Vineyards — Napa, California — March 19, 2008 2:18am ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 19, 2008 4:04am ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — March 19, 2008 11:39am ET
Juan Morales — Monterrey NL Mexico — March 19, 2008 12:37pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler Me — Monterrey, Mexico — March 19, 2008 8:05pm ET
Monticello Vineyards — Napa, California — March 19, 2008 10:58pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 20, 2008 12:11am ET
Gilberto Salinas — Tijuana,Baja Califronia, Mexico — March 20, 2008 10:22pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 23, 2008 1:19am ET
Juan Morales — Monterrey NL Mexico — March 25, 2008 2:34pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler Me — Monterrey, Mexico — June 13, 2008 9:51pm ET
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