I spent an afternoon with Hugo d’Acosta, the wine guru of Baja California, Mexico, tasting through various barrels of 2007 in one of his wineries, La Escuelaita – "the little school" in Spanish. The small winery is actually a school where about 50 wine-keen friends make their wines every year under the direction of Hugo. They make anywhere from one to 10 barrels. Check out the video, below, of me tasting from barrel there with Hugo.
The school, located in the hamlet of El Porvenir, was begun a few years ago when the prices for grapes in the region plummeted, forcing many of the growers to pull out their vines. But Hugo had the idea to help them learn to make wines to help themselves and save some of the old vines of the region.
It goes along with his winemaking philosophy: “We don’t need winemakers. The fruit is so good. We just have to follow the fruit ... I started my barbeque with my winemaking books a long time ago. We don’t need them.”
Of course, it's a slight exaggeration, because Hugo himself went to winemaking school in Montpelier, France. Moreover, he has worked in various key winemaking regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. So he's looked at a few winemaking books in his time! But he has a point. It’s the same as the cliché I hear just about every time I am in a vineyard – something to the effect of “great wine is made in the vineyard.”
It’s true but I get tired of hearing it over and over again. And some people use the line without actually applying it ... but that’s another column.
But it is true in Baja, just as in other good winemaking regions in the world. Hugo’s best wines I tasted were from Southern Rhône varietals such as Grenache and Carignan as well as Petit Sirah (Durif), Zinfandel and Nebbiolo. Yes. Nebbiolo. Baja may be the only place in the world outside of Piedmont that can produce a serious Nebbiolo. Don’t laugh. Seriously. In fact, I hope to crush my first Nebbiolo this September at La Escuelita as an experiment - just a barrel or two’s worth.
A world of caution on all this: Baja is not the new winemaking Nirvana or Land of Oz or whatever. There is still a lot of plonk made there, through every viticulture and winemaking error one can think of, from overproduction in the vineyard to filthy cellars. Some are just overdoing it all.
I went to a tasting at winery called Balch’e and I was saddened how they had pushed their wines in the cellar. What could have been balanced and beautiful wines were extracted and pushed almost beyond recognition. Their wines were like those muscular body builders you see in those weird magazines on the subject. Way too many steroids!
I think they had macerated their wines for three or four weeks after the alcoholic fermentation as well as reduced the juice to skin ratio to about 40 to 50 percent. Plus, 100 percent new wood galore. I still thought the wines were good quality and some people may really like wines like that, but it was just too much. They were one-sip wines – good for competitions but not for drinking.
Anyway, the winemaker at Balch'e told me that they were trying to be different than any other winery in Baja. So they supercharged their wines. What they achieved was being the same as many over-extracted, terroir-less wines that tell you very little about where they are from when you taste them. If they pulled back on the extraction and oak, I am sure they would be better.
Before I visited Balch’e, Hugo had mentioned what he thought winemakers should be doing in the region in regards to concentration, and I had to agree with him. “Here you have to be careful with the concentration,” he said. “It’s the opposite. The concentration kills the elegance and balance.”
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 19, 2008 10:23pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 20, 2008 1:38am ET
Justin Renard — Tokyo, Japan — March 20, 2008 12:06pm ET
Juan Vazquez-abarca — Tijuana, Mexico — March 20, 2008 1:37pm ET
Gilberto Salinas — Tijuana,Baja Califronia, Mexico — March 20, 2008 2:36pm ET
Vinideus In The Pearl — Portland, OR — March 20, 2008 4:46pm ET
Daniel Backal — Mex City — March 22, 2008 9:22pm ET
Juan Morales — Monterrey NL Mexico — March 26, 2008 12:01pm ET
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