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Baja Wine Country
by Tina Caputo
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.1

Tasty Vino Just South of the Border

The first time I tried Mexican wine I pretty much expected it to suck. After all, who ever heard of a good wine from the land of tequila? But there I was, faced with the wine list at an upscale-ish restaurant in Mexico, and it just seemed weird to order a wine from, say, France.

Instead, I chose a sauvignon blanc from Mexico's Baja Peninsula and hoped I'd be able to choke it down. To my delighted amazement the wine was good -- and not just in a "this-ain't-so-bad-for-Mexican-wine" way. In fact, the wine was good in an "I-would-actually-buy-this" way!

I figured it had to be a fluke, but on further investigation I learned that there are actually quite a few tasty wines coming out of that region. Who knew? And, more importantly, why didn't anybody bother tellin' me? Just how long had I been missing out on the fine vino of an entire nation?

The answer was worse than I thought: Folks have been making wine in Baja for almost 300 years!

A Brief History of Vino Mexicano

According to legend, a Jesuit priest named Father Juan de Ugarge planted the Baja Peninsula's first grapevines in 1701, when he took over the Loreto mission. The early Mexican wines weren't exactly renowned for their quality, which might explain why cerveza and tequila became the beverages of choice. It wasn't until a mere decade ago that things began to improve in the wine arena.

Although the potential was always there, people just weren't interested in making fine wine in Mexico. This is hardly surprising when you consider that, until recently, only about four people in Mexico were actually drinking the stuff. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, annual per capita wine consumption in Mexico is a mere eighth of a gallon, as compared to about two gallons in the United States. Those who did enjoy wine tended to go for French or California labels because it wasn't considered "cool" to drink Mexican wine.

So what changed?

In the late 1980s, a new crop of wineries arrived on the scene, touching off a Mexican wine renaissance. Not content to continue the industrial winemaking practices of their predecessors, these new kids on the block were out to make world-class wines in Mexico. Not only that, they were willing to invest the time and dinero to make it happen.

Mexico's first boutique wineries were born as producers built state-of-the-art wineries and hired French-trained winemakers. Wineries like Monte Xanic and Chateau Camou were soon achieving levels of quality that blew other producers away. Not wanting to miss the boat, older companies, like Santo Tomas and L.A. Cetto, began making fine wines and insisting on higher levels of quality. Luckily, these improvements didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Today, a number of Mexican wineries are exporting their fine vinos to the United States, Europe and even France. I'll bet Father Juan would drink to that!

Baja California: Mexico's answer to the Napa Valley

The heart of the Mexican wine country lies near Ensenada on the Baja Peninsula, about 75 miles south of San Diego. Baja is divided into three winegrowing regions: San Antonio de las Minas, San Vincente Valley and Santo Tomas Valley. San Antonio de las Minas is home to the Valley of Guadalupe, Mexico's most important wine region.

Baja's climate and soil have been compared to those of Napa and France's Rhone Valley. The climate is Mediterranean, with rainy winters, followed by dry springs and summers. Thanks to a variety of additional microclimates, a wide range of grape varieties is grown, including chardonnay, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, barbera, cabernet, syrah, tempranillo, merlot and cabernet franc.

Meet the Wineries

There are nearly a dozen wineries in Baja today, with more popping up each year. Just thinking about it makes a gal thirsty! But before we get to the tasting part, let's get to know a few of Mexico's most important (and tastiest) wine producers.

BODEGAS SANTO TOMAS
Avenida Miramar No. 666, Zona Centro, Ensenada, BC; 011 52 617 83333; santotomas.com.mx (Open daily, 11 am to 3 pm)

Founded in 1882, Santo Tomas is Mexico's oldest continuously operating winery and its best-known producer. Most of the winery's vineyards are located in the Santo Tomas Valley, with a small amount of acreage in San Antonio de las Minas and the San Vincente Valley. French-trained winemaker Hugo D'Acosa produces about 200,000 cases a year, including chenin blanc, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, barbera and tempranillo. Santo Tomas is also known for producing an acclaimed wine in conjunction with California's Wente Vineyards. Known as Dueto, the wine is a 50-50 blend of Santo Tomas and Wente wines.

CHATEAU CAMOU
Aldana No. 599-2A, Col, Obrera, Ensenada, BC; 011 52 617-72221 chateau-camou.com.mx

Located in Ca-ada del Trigo, Chateau Camou was founded in 1995. Although a relative newcomer to the Baja wine scene, this ultra-modern winery is considered one of Mexico's finest. (If you don't believe me, ask Robert Mondavi. On a recent visit to Camou he reportedly said, "You make your wines like I make Opus One.") Chateau Camou's winemaker, Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, studied enology at the University of Bordeaux, in France, and has 15 years of winemaking experience under his belt. Along with a particularly successful barrel-fermented fume blanc, the winery is known for its exhaustive vineyard maintenance techniques, sophisticated gravity pressing system and state-of-the-art equipment.

L.A. CETTO
Valle de Guadalupe, Highway 3, KM 73, Ensenada, BC; 011 52 588 51644

Located in the famous Valley of Guadalupe, L.A. Cetto is owned by a large spirits producer whose main focus is brandy. The company began making tasty and reasonably Ðpriced table wines in 1926. Highly praised for its nebbiolo, Cetto also makes cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, fume blanc, chardonnay and zinfandel.

MONTE XANIC
S.de R.I. de C.V., Valley de Guadalupe, Ensenada, BC; 011 52 617 46155 montexanic.com.mx

Founded in 1988, Monte Xanic was one of the first Mexican wineries to aim for top quality. Its vineyards are cultivated using both traditional and modern techniques, and yields are deliberately kept low to produce more concentrated grapes. Winemaker Hans Backhoff uses cutting-edge winemaking techniques and advanced technology to produce Mexican wines in the style of Bordeaux. The winery produces chardonnay, merlot-cabernet, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and a sauvignon blanc-semillon blend called Vi-a Kristel. All wines are aged in French oak.


Baja Wine Reviews

WHITES:

Chateau Camou
Vinas de Camou 1996 Fume Blanc $12
Hey, who switched my fume blanc with their viognier! This luscious number is so perfumey and floral you'll swear they mislabeled the bottle. It's rich, weighty and delicious... but don't expect it to taste like any California fume on the market. Try it with spicy food.

Chateau Camou
Vinas de Camou 1997 Chardonnay $14
How do you say "kicks butt" in Spanish? Pale yellow with rich aromas of honey, vanilla and apple. (I know I've said this before but it's true, dammit!) So rich and voluptuous you'll want to take it to bed with you. Intense, perfumed aromas followed by deliciously rich vanilla and ripe tropical fruit flavors. Honey-licious! Try it with spicy food.

L.A. Cetto
1997 Chardonnay Reserva Limitada $16
Pale yellow in color with subtle vanilla aromas. Our friend vanilla also makes an appearance in the mouth, but your tongue will remain free of the splinters many overly oaky chards may inflict. Very nice stuff.

Monte Xanic
1996 Vina Kristel $8
A blend of 80 percent sauvignon blanc and 20 percent semillon, this wine was named after the winemaker's daughter. (Kristel, silly -- not Vina!) Medium golden color with rich floral and fruity (as in apple) aromas. It's not as rich-tasting as your nose would lead you to believe. Instead, it's dry, tart and refreshing, with subtle vanilla. A tasty and surprising wine.

Monte Xanic
1996 Chardonnay $13.50
Golden straw color with aromas of apple, pear, vanilla and honey. This one tastes like you'd hope it would -- rich but refreshing, with vanilla, honey and a little tart apple. Lean in style and quite good. If you're not a fan of big, flabby chards, take it from Barry Manilow: This one's for you.

Santo Tomas
1996 Chardonnay $17.50
Pale yellow with a lemony Mr. Clean sort of aroma. Citrus-y flavors with plenty of lime make this chard a little confusing. Aged in oak, but no detectable oakiness. A nice enough wine, but it could easily be mistaken for a sauvignon blanc.

REDS:

Chateau Camou
Vinas de Camou 1996 El Gran Vino Tinto $18
This wine won a silver medal at Vinexpo in France... and it's easy to see why! A Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, this one's got floral aromas accented with berries, vanilla, coffee and cassis. Translation: Yum! Much lighter in style than many hair-on-the-tongue-inducing Bordeaux wines. Fruity and smooth. Best of the bunch.

Chateau Camou
Flor de Guadalupe 1996 Zinfandel $10
This old-vine zinfandel smells like ripe red berries. Delicious zin with loads of intense fruit. Aromatic, smooth and alive with strawberry and raspberry flavors. Aged in oak, but not overly woody. Uno mas, por favor!

L.A. Cetto
1996 Nebbiolo Reserva Limitada $8
Lovely cranberry color, with peppery and spicy aromas. Smooth and spicy in the mouth, with yummy long-lasting berry flavors. Some complexity here, but easy-drinkin'. A zippy red you can drink with or without food.

L.A. Cetto
1998 Zinfandel $8
Why is this stuff so dang cheap? An intense burst of strawberry and raspberry aromas grab hold of your nose and invite your mouth to get in on the action. Does the wine's flavor live up to the promise of its aroma? Yup. The wine's dee-lish berry flavors might make you wonder if it's actually made of grapes. Light in texture with tons of red fruit. Muy drinkable -- fragrant and flavorful.

Monte Xanic
1995 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot $16.50
A blend of 75 percent cabernet and 25 percent merlot, this dark red vino has a peppery, tannic aroma that says "BIG!" A healthy sip reveals bold and fruity flavors that last long after you swallow. Smooth goin' down. Drink this with a big ol' steak.

Monte Xanic
1996 Merlot $16.50
Bright ruby red in color. Spicy berry aroma with fruity, licorice-y flavors. Like your last boy/girlfriend: Tasty in the beginning but a little sharp at the end.

Monte Xanic
1996 Cabernet Sauvignon $16.50
Fruity aromas with lots o' vanilla. Light red berry flavor (as in rasp- and straw-) and texture. Highly drinkable! Tons of fruit, with a little tannin kicking in at the end. Me gusta mucho!

Santo Tomas
1995 Tempranillo $11
A bright and zingy wine made from tempranillo grapes, which are often grown in Spain's Rioja region. Light and tasty, with delicate fruit flavors, and easy to drink. This would be great with spicy Mexican food.

Santo Tomas
1996 Barbera $13.50
Light cranberry-juice color with subtle berry aromas. Fruity and smooth, with a little vanilla from the oak aging. A very nice wine.

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