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Magazine Archives: Feb. 28, 2014

Visiting Baja Wine Country

Maria Finn
Issue: February 28, 2014

Mexico is one of Latin America's oldest winemaking countries, but grapegrowing there has at times been a bumpy road. Catholic missionaries and conquistadores from Spain began cultivating grapes in the early 1500s, and land grant recipients in the colony were required to plant vines. Nearly 200 years later, the Spanish crown prohibited wine production in its colonies, excepting wines used for church sacraments. Since Mexico declared independence, viticulture has been slow to catch on in this beer- and tequila-loving country. But now Mexico's premier wine region, Valle de Guadalupe, is creating a buzz in the food-and-wine world.

The Valle de Guadalupe is an hour's drive south of Tijuana and 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It sits between clay red mountains pocked with boulders and grids of olive trees and grapevines that give this region a Mediterranean feel. Mexico aficionados should not worry though—there are still colorful shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe along the road, and mariachi bands still perform at winery events. This region is laid-back, with signage so obscure that you should consider the search for the wineries and restaurants a treasure hunt down dusty roads shared with cows and chickens. For all the back-roads color, however, the area's restaurants, boutique hotels and wineries are very much worth the effort it takes to find them. Crime has dropped sharply in Baja California since 2010, and the number of Americans visiting the region is on the rise. The easiest way to get there is to fly into San Diego and rent a car with additional Mexico insurance.

Note: When calling the following establishments from the United States, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices in this story have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1=13 pesos), but it is not uncommon to see prices given in dollars, and U.S. currency is widely accepted in Baja.


Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 88
Telephone (52) 646-156-8030
Website www.corazondetierra.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Six-course menu $65, with wine or craft beer pairing $93
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

At Corazón de Tierra's airy dining room with glass walls, the view and meals are inspired by an edible garden where loquat trees shade kohlrabi. The tasting menu is a delightful interpretation of the flora and fauna of the region, with water, earth and sky each represented. While the restaurant has an ever-changing wine list, pairing courses with wines from the property's next-door winery, Vena Cava, is a good way to go. From the coast, a sashimi of clams garnished with red algae and avocado was paired with Vena Cava rosé 2012 ($20 bottle, $7 glass), while land was represented by a textured dish of purslane, cactus and chicharrón dust, all topped with a peppery arugula sauce and matched with the Vena Cava Big Blend red 2010 ($26 bottle, $8 glass). From the air was quail, served boneless, with artichoke puree, leek, black radish and Swiss chard, with Vena Cava Tempranillo 2010 ($26 bottle, $8 glass).

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 83
Telephone (52) 646-156-8045
Website www.fincaaltozano.com
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $10-$30
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

This open-air restaurant offers gape-worthy views, with tables perched on a rustic wooden platform that overlooks vineyards. Visitors who arrive early can enjoy a local beer at seating areas around fire pits before moving to their table. Among the small-plate choices are local artisanal cheeses and tuna ceviche tostadas. A wood-burning grill is used to cook local beef, lamb and octopus, as well as sides of grilled wild mushrooms finished with huitlacoche, a trufflelike delicacy made from corn fungus. The wine list features more than 50 selections, all from Mexico. Winemakers favor blends in this region, and Tempranillo and Nebbiolo grapes do very well here. With the earthy, woody dishes from the grill, try a bottle of Las Nubes Nimbus 2010, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Tempranillo ($50) or the Barón Balch'é Reserva Especial 2007, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Merlot ($40).

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 83
Telephone (52) 646-155-2556
Website www.lajamexico.com
Open Lunch, Wednesday to Saturday; dinner, Thursday to Saturday
Cost Tasting menus $55-$70
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

Laja has been called The French Laundry of Mexico. Chef Jair Téllez studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and although his training is international, he sources local ingredients and draws inspiration from the restaurant's garden. The tasting menus (eight-course and four-course are available) offer starters such as artichoke velouté soup with serrano jam, or a diver scallop carpaccio with avocado, chive, borage and tobiko, and work toward heavier meat and seafood dishes. If the lovely lemon verbena panna cotta with fruit sorbet seems small, you can always ask for more—Laja offers free seconds. If it's a hot day, sample the Monte Xanic Chenin Blanc ($48). For a versatile red, Moebius Viceversa is a blend of Syrah and Cabernet ($41).


Col. Rusa de Guadalupe
Telephone (52) 1-646-155-2094 or (52) 646-155-2527
Website www.adobeguadalupe.com
Rooms 6
Rates $198, includes breakfast for two and wine tasting

Traditional Mexican-style architecture and decor are hallmarks of this bed-and-breakfast. The owners, Donald and Tru Miller, raise Azteca horses and will help guests arrange rides to nearby wineries. The winery on the property offers very good red blends. Dinner with wine is an option for $75; non-guests can do a tasting, by appointment, for $5 per person.

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 75
Telephone (52) 646-155-2775
Website www.hotelendemico.com
Rooms 20
Rates $187-$217

This new eco-chic resort features contemporary cabins perched on a stunning hillside. An art gallery recently opened here, as well as Origen, a garden-to-table restaurant.

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 88
Telephone (52) 646 156-8007
Website www.lavilladelvalle.com
Rooms 6
Rates $195-$330

This country retreat has just six guest rooms, which are a respite of warmth, style and inspired food and wine. On the same property is Vena Cava winery—whose facilities are made of repurposed boats—along with the highly acclaimed restaurant Corazón de Tierra (see previous page).


Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 93.5
Telephone (52) 646-155-3102
Website www.vinoscasadepiedra.com
Open By appointment
Cost Free

Hugo d'Acosta, sometimes called the Robert Mondavi of Baja, left Mexico City to study winemaking in Bordeaux, then found work at wineries in Italy and Napa. He moved to the Valle de Guadalupe in the 1980s and helped turn it into a serious winegrowing region; it now boasts 70 wineries. He has lured chefs from Mexico City, founded La Escuelita (a winemaking school for hobbyists and professionals alike) and started two wineries: Casa de Piedra and Paralelo. Hugo's brother, Alejandro, designed the facilities for both.

Ej. El Porvenir
Telephone (52) 646-155-2141
Website www.baronbalche.com
Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Cost $5

This rustic, charming winery is a great place to experience the red blends the region is known for, as well as single-variety wines.

Carretera Tecate-El Sauzal Km. 73.5
Telephone (52) 646-155-2179
Website www.cettowines.com
Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Cost $2-$12

Tastings and vineyard tours are among the activities at this popular winery, which also has tasting rooms and boutiques in Tijuana and Mexico City.

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 86.5
Telephone (52) 646-156-8156 or (52) 646-135-4626
Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; Sunday to Friday by appointment
Cost $5

Mogor Badan is a highly regarded boutique winery founded by a family of Swiss expatriates. They are known for their Mogor Badan Cabernet-Merlot blend, as well as their white, Chasselas de Mogor.

Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 103
Telephone (52) 646-155-2080
Website www.montexanic.com.mx
Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily
Cost $5-$10; wines available to purchase on the premises

Founded by five friends in 1987, Monte Xanic is one of the oldest wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe and in the 1980s, it helped lead the way making premium wines. The most popular varietals are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chenin Colombard. Enjoy an amazing valley view here.

Maria Finn is author of The Whole Fish. Her website is www.mariafinn.com.

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