Valle de Guadalupe: A Sundrenched Land of Food and Wine

Wine has long been made on Mexican land, regional winemaking harking back to the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. But as an industry, Mexican wine is still very much in its infancy. However, understanding the terroir or assigning a definitive identity to the wine is complicated, namely by its newness. Is the nature of its terroir different from the core established wine regions elsewhere, places where their respective identities have developed over hundreds of years? Is there a singularity to so-called Mexican wine that reflects the land and the culture in the same way that terroir does in, say, Burgundy? What does it mean to be Mexican wine?

For the last few years, Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, Mexico has been undergoing a boom. Growing from a few small wineries in the nineties to over 100 today, the region has accordingly received a lot of press attention. Last year, Baja featured in the Wine Enthusiast's Travel Issue's Top Wine Getaways of 2014, and has also featured in Food and Wine, The Guardian, and the Economist.

But contrary to the popular saying, not all press is good press. And there is one story that stands out, Lettie Teague's July 2014 piece in The Wall Street Journal, "The next Napa, not quite." Nearly a year later, the article remains a thorn in the region's side, with a very honest and open debate about a supposedly salty characteristic she encountered: " I visited several wineries that will remain nameless, as the wines are far from thrilling — often quite salty and not terribly good... "

Yet according to several people I talked to, Teague arrived in the morning and left in the evening of the same day, leaving her little time for more than a preliminary impression.

Past articles aside, does Baja have the potential to become a major international wine region? In Italy, Brunello is a recent creation; Franciacorta the same. We recently ran an interview with winemaker Paul Hobbs where he stated that when he was consulting in Argentina in 1988 for Nicolas Catena, he was told not to make wine from Malbec. Hobbs did anyway, the wine got a big score, and the rest is history. But what if Argentina had stuck to Cabernet and Chardonnay?

The Valle de Guadalupe is about 90 miles south of San Diego and 15 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It has a Mediterranean climate, though a little more extreme due to its distance from the coast and hot, dry summers. And as mentioned before, the region boasts a long wine legacy.

Jesuit priest Juan Ugarte planted the first vines in Baja in 1701. In 1857, the growth of the region's winemaking was stunted by Mexico's War of Reform, when the Catholic Church was overthrown and all church property became part of the state and the missionary wineries were abandoned. Vines were replanted in 1904 when the region experienced an influx of immigrants known as the Molokans, part of a Russian pacifist religious group. The Russians purchased land and dedicated a considerable portion of it to harvesting grapes for wine.  

Then the 1980s saw another sizable shift in Mexican winemaking. In 1987, a small group of investors led by Dr. Hans Backhoff came together to establish Monte Xanic, Mexico's first artisanal winery. Their approach to winemaking included controlling harvest yields, hand-picking the grapes at night, and frequent pruning of the vines. It was a true sign of the changing tide towards an evolved winemaking, comparable to evolutions and similar revolutions the world over - and there was one more sizable shift that would set the region on its present course.

Around the same time, a year later in 1988, Bodegas de Santo Tomas hired the Bordeaux trained Mexican winemaker Hugo D'Acosta. D'Acosta had received his doctorate in oenology from the prestigious Montpelier University in France, having worked in wineries in Italy and California's Napa Valley since. After Santo Tomas, he took the position of head winemaker at Adobe Guadalupe, before eventually founding his own boutique winery, Casa de Piedra, in 1997. (On our recent trip, I tasted at Paralelo, one of his recent endeavors, trying two blends made with the same grape - the difference being one was valley floor grapes and one hillside grapes. The wines were robust, flavorful, bold wines. Interestingly, the hillside grapes were the spicier of the two.)

As with many young wine regions, Valle de Guadalupe is still figuring out which grapes work best. Daniel Lonnberg, a Chilean who was winemaker at Paralelo and is now winemaker at Adobe Guadalupe, points to Cabernet, Tempranillo, Malbec, Syrah, Grenache, and Nebbiolo as the grapes with the greatest potential. He also notes that, like with certain Mediterranean regions, blends offer the best way to highlight the potential of the region.

Paolo Paoloni agrees. The winemaker, originally from the Marche region in Italy, has been in the valley since 1997 and believes that Nebbiolo will prove to be the signature grape of Baja: "Because the Nebbiolo grapes here produce wine darker, heavier and bolder in tannins than in Italy. This is something that makes this place unique."

And with a couple tastings under our belts, I might agree as well. At Monte Xanic, winemaker Israel Zenteno gave me a surprisingly robust Cabernet Franc. While it was a little bigger and fatter than one typically expects a Cabernet Franc to be, the natural pepperiness of the grape responded well with the natural spiciness of the area resulting in a bold, interesting wine with notes of black currants, violets and graphite.

For an emerging wine region to become the "next big thing," it needs to offer wines that not only speak to the place, but of the place, ultimately embraced by tastemakers for their uniqueness. The Baja wines certainly have a uniqueness to them, call it what you will - saltiness, minerality, or spiciness. It feels like there is a connection between the wines and the region's food. The wines feel like they should be drunk with a fresh beef taco dressed with a jalapeño salsa or a molé sauce.

Most of the Valle de Guadalupe wines are blends. The wines are full bodied and concentrated and there is a unique whack of spice on the follow-through. The questions becomes: is this a flaw (as Teague argues) or is it a Mexican terroir that should be embraced for its uniqueness? Or are her criticisms another example of the homogenization of western critical thought, pushing wines at us that are all well made but share a sameness?

The issue with the salinity of the wine is said to be related to the soils formerly being sea bed. The salinity is said to have become more of an issue in years where there is little rain and where the grapes are more concentrated. Talking to seven different winemakers, opinions about the salinity of the wines vary greatly. Some producers, such as El Mogor and Paoloni, say they don't suffer from the water issues because they are off the valley floor and their vines are irrigated by mountain spring water. Others deny this, saying that everyone is using the same water. (And everyone has a story about how they have better water.)

Pau Pijoan, who has five acres of vineyards and has been making wine for 12 years in the Valley, thinks the salinity is related mostly to certain types of soils: "Some types of soil are more affected by salinity than others. For example, sandy soil, the grapes grown in sandy soil, usually don't have this character. Whereas vines grown on hills, especially if the soils are very heavy, they will show this characteristic."   
Alvaro Alvarez-Parilla, a mathematician and researcher in pure and applied mathematics at the University of Baja California and owner of AlXimia Winery (right) believes the salinity issue is related to the winemaking techniques rather than anything endemic in the soil.

"Some producers allow a temperature profile that grows and then they leave it at a certain temperature, a high temperature, then they level it off to get the extraction," Alvarez-Parilla explains. "What this does is it produces a lot of color extraction, but if it's not taken good care of, you can also get salt into the process." 

The one wine that Teague held up as an example of a quality wine seems to be the most technically well made of the wines I tried as well - the El Mogor blend. It is a wine that might as soon come from Napa. The El Mogor team also make a blend that combines grapes from France and local grapes. There seems a need to escape the prison of the terroir, the saltiness. While drinking the wine I wondered, is this wine which is perhaps the least representative wine of the region also the best, or does the spiciness of Baja wine express a different terrior, something that is unique and should be embraced?

The Valle de Guadalupe becoming known as a destination is now as much to do with the food as it is for the wine. Its distance from San Diego makes it an attractive day trip. Anthony Bourdain has even praised the food.

And the singular star of Teague's Wall Street Journal column is chef Drew Deckman (left). Deckman is a Georgia native who moved to Mexico to pursue competitive fishing. For many years he was based in Cabo and spent part of the year fishing, and then in Valle de Guadalupe for part of the year running his restaurant, Deckman's en El Mogor. Despite his non-Mexican heritage, Deckman has created a restaurant that somehow conveys a truly organic sense of Baja-ness. 

Deckman says his focus is highlighting the local ingredients: "The best guys in Mexico are doing traditional food in a way that you look at it and you wouldn't recognize that this is a traditional recipe. That's respecting the origin, respecting the ingredient, but now taking a different freeway, so to speak."

His restaurant has a great energy about it. There are a handful of tables and an open stove a stone's throw from the table. Deckman is bobbing and weaving amongst the pots and pans while assistants chop and prep around him. The food, the ambiance all feel connected to a certain Baja-ness of the land, a little rough around the edges but with an inspiring creativity. 

While Deckman's is clearly a success, the region is still finding its identity with food as with wine. A contrast to the vibe at Deckman's is Corazon De Tierra, which is run by top Mexican chef Diego Hernandez. Corazon De Tierra has a farm to table ethos. It is a thoughtful restaurant with a multi-course tasting menu (and a large bill to go with it, probably three or four times what you would pay at Deckman's). If you close your eyes and eat the food you could be in a fancy restaurant in New York City. The day we were there for lunch there were more servers than diners. Despite the fact the food is picked from a garden just a short distance from the table, eating it feels consciously divorced from the energy of Baja. When eating in the open air in Baja there is nothing wrong with having a few flies whirling around your food, but when the dishes are so precious, you almost expect the army of servers to whisk them away for you. As the dining experience at Deckman's feels authentic to the region, the dining experience at Corazon De Tierra feels oddly disconnected. As with the wines, the food scene is still discovering what it means to be of Baja.

The physical beauty of the Valle de Guadalupe is a major reason the area has taken off as a travel destination. The rolling hills, beautiful architecture alongside the deep blue sky makes you feel like you are sipping wine from inside a landscape painting. While tourism is on the rise, the numbers are small compared to the wine regions of Northern California and you still feel a sense of discovery. The balance between comfort and rustic charm has been responsibly straddled. We stayed at Adobe Guadalupe which is a traditional beautiful Spanish building. Breakfast is served in a large communal kitchen and you are prepared fruit, fresh eggs, and tortillas from the cook who is just two feet away. You might be sharing the table with the property's horse trainer, agronomist or Tru Miller, the owner. There is a warm family feel to the experience while allowing for privacy and the necessary comforts Westerners expect while on vacation. Other places that came highly recommended by friends are Encuentro Resort, which is comprised of stunning cabins built on stilts. It has a simple minimalist, close to nature aesthetic. I did not stay as they have an adults only policy and I was traveling with a five-year-old. The other unique experience is the glamping eco tents at Cabanas Cuatro Cuatros

It is interesting that the only Mexican wines we could find in New York are from L.A. Cetto, the largest producer of Mexican wines. The distributor we spoke to told us that the wines are almost exclusively sold to Mexican restaurants. Winemakers in Mexico need be able to showcase the unique nature of their wines with the foods they match up so well with. One of the challenges for the Mexican wine industry is the price of the wine. Baja wines are not cheap. You will pay $20 to $30 for a bottle from one of the artisanal producers. One of the main complaints we kept hearing from winemakers related to the level of taxation that the government applies. 40% of the price of the wine produced and sold domestically goes to the government in taxes. There is a feeling that the powerful beer lobby is behind this holding back of the domestic wine industry. By comparison an imported wine pays significantly less in tax. The cost of the wine is a factor in there being very little distribution outside of Mexico.

The experience of the Valle de Guadalupe is the connection between the food, the land, and, of course, the wine. Because of the combination, it will continue to grow as an important destination in the realm of vino-tourism. As for the wine, the region needs to embrace its difference and not try to be the next Napa.

The legend behind the birth of the Mexican wine industry is that Hernán Cortés and his men exhausted their wine supply after celebrating the conquest of the Aztecs in the 1500s. In order to abay their thirst, the Spaniards demanded that recipients of land grants plant vines. Over six hundred years later the industry is still establishing its identity.

Watch our video interviews with:

Drew Deckman of Deckman's en El Mogor

Pau Pijoan of Viñas Pijoan

Israel Zenteno of Monte Xanic

Tru Miller and Daniel Lonnberg of Adobe Guadalupe 

Alvaro Alvarez-Parilla of AlXimia

Paolo Paoloni of Villa Montefiori

Editor's note: A reader suggested this website where some of the Mexican wines discussed are available: