Friday, March 12, 2010

¡Vinos Mexicanos!

Guadalupe Valley, Baja, Mexico – I know, I know. Wine in Mexico. It’s just wrong.

Tequila? Of course. Beer? Muy bueno. Kahlua? Yeah, baby. But wine? Who knew? But pop on down to Ensenada and take Highway One north about 20 miles or so to Valle de Guadalupe and you’ll find a collection of wineries that put out some pretty good stuff.

Upon further inspection into this phenomenon one might expect to learn that Guadalupe Valley wine region is on the same northern latitude as, say, Tuscany or some other place famous for its wine grape climate. One assuming as much would be, well, wrong. Guadalupe Valley is on the 32nd parallel, which puts it at roughly the same latitude as Saudi Arabia or a swath of the People’s Republic of China. These are not well-known wine-making regions; nor are Algeria, Morocco, or Pakistan, which also rest on the 32nd parallel. You get the point.

Our guide for a tour of this most interesting of wine regions was Melanie Champagne. I am not making that up. A French Canadian who had moved to Mexico eight years prior, she had obvious rapport with the host wineries and was clearly proud of her adopted home. We've taken a lot of cruise tours in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central Ameica and Alaska over the years and this one is in my top five. You just never know. (My other four, you ask? Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica; Snorkeling with sting rays in Grand Cayman; Whale-watching near Juneau, Alaska; Sierra Madre Mountains near Manzanillo, Mexico.)

There is an explanation for why certain wine grapes (particularly Spanish and Italian varietals, it seems), thrive here. The area’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its dry climate and rolling terrain make for warm, sunny days and cool nights, with soil so loose that vineyards grow barley between the vines on hillsides to keep the dirt from slipping away. Here, Mexico’s largest winery, L.A. Cetto, makes a respectable nebbiolo, a decent cabernet-sauvignon, a tasty barbera and a pretty good blanc de blancs sparkling wine -- Champbrulé -- out of chardonnay.

It does feature something you won’t find in Napa – a bullring at the top of a hill that actually occasionally gets some use. It’s a beautiful setting that includes olive groves and an on-site bottling plant, plus some roosters and peacocks.

More intriguing, however, is the small La Casa de Dona Lupe, founded in 1968 by Dona Lupe Wilson and her late husband. Dona still welcomes visitors to the small organic winery, now run by her son, where they also grow olives, serve homemade pizza and make their own jellies and other good stuff. We snacked on cookies and pizza while trying the wines, most of which were blended with grenache in a traditional European way. We brought home some of Dona's homemade jalapeno jelly.

La Casa Dona Lupe is at the end of a dirt road at the northern edge of the valley and couldn't possibly be more charming, with a beautiful courtyard surrounded by grapevines, palm trees and a small store, kitchen and tasting room.

The University of Baja California in Ensenada is now home to a School of Oenology (the study and science of wine-making) and Gastronomy, so it's likely that the region will continue to emerge as a wine source. Among the most respected wines in Mexico is Chateau Camou, also in Guadalupe Valley. We didn't have time to stop there, which gives us a reason to go back. Honest.

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