Wednesday, January 23rd 2019
Mexican Wine: Baja California Wineries
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Baja California Wineries:
Situated along the Pacific Coast, only a couple of hours south of San Diego, lies the port city of Ensenada. It is an important export location for Mexico’s agricultural and fishing industries. In addition, the surrounding valleys supply around 90% of the country’s wine production—not surprisingly, given the proximity of world-class wine regions to the north. In recent decades, Baja California wineries have exploded due to the increase in prestige and interest for the wine there—owing huge thanks to towering figures like Hans Backoff and Hugo D’Acosta—among others—who have raised the standard and inspired a new generation of talent.
On a map, the area hardly looks like a promising location for Baja California wineries, with its low-latitude and desert surroundings. However, the several valleys that stretch perpendicular to the ocean create unobstructed access to coastal breezes that moderate the climate into something reminiscent of the Mediterranean. The lack of old-world regulation has allowed for healthy experimentalism, resulting in many unlikely successes. As long as conditions that harbor such an ideal location for wine-making endure, Baja California will continue as the Mexican wine capital.
History of Baja California Wineries:
Baja California wineries’ history owes its origins to Catholic missionaries who traveled through the area in the late 16th C.E. Before the Spanish arrived, native populations grew grapes for consumption, but the vines were thin, wiry bushes found on the banks of rivers—and only semi-fermented due to lack of sugar. When Hernan Cortez arrived, vitis vinifera spread rapidly as it was needed for the sacrament—as well as being a primary source of enjoyment for Europeans. In the early 1900s, Mexico suffered the same phylloxera epidemic as California, resulting in the decimation of a huge percentage of their vines. After this, Mexico slowly began to realize its potential for high-quality wine production and commercialization, planting more varietals and mirroring the models that made Baja California wineries important—culminating into what we have today: a fast-growing, competitive industry with much to look forward to.
Terroir of Baja California Wineries:
Averaging altitudes of over 1,000 feet, the sea-facing valleys of northwest Baja California have an ecology unique to the region. Humid winters, dry-warm summers, and morning fog all contribute to a system inviting for wine production. The soil in areas like Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe varies from gravel to red clay to sand, influencing everything from what rootstock is used to irrigation levels. Irrigation is an issue of huge concern because of the depletion of the already salinated groundwater. This salination contributes to the “brininess” characterized by wines of this region. Some winemakers embrace it as a quirk, while others work to limit it. (There are even plans to truck in treated water from Tijuana, which is currently dumping huge amounts into the ocean.) The climate has been compared to the Mediterranean and enjoys a long ripening season. Harvests start anywhere from late July to early October.
Economy of Baja California Wineries:
Mexico has long been the land of beer and tequila. Even the majority of wine grape production goes toward making brandy. However, the past couple of decades have seen domestic wine consumption double in growth. With the middle class expanding ever-rapidly, there is no sign of production slowing. However, if this has inspired you to give everything up and buy a vineyard in Baja, you might want to reconsider. In the last twenty years, a hectare of land in the Valle de Guadalupe has surged from roughly $10,000 USD to upwards of $100,000 USD. The number of wineries in Baja California wineries now number over 100 and they are currently producing the majority of 1.6 million cases a year.
Notable Wineries of Baja California:
The three biggest Baja California wineries are Bodegas Santo Tomas, L.A. Cetto, and Casa Domecq. Santo Tomas is the oldest winery in Baja California, founded in 1791 with commercial production starting in 1888. Later in the 20th Century, Santo Tomas received some notoriety for their collaboration with Wente Vineyard in California, producing a 50/50 blend called Duetto. In 1989, Hugo D’Acosta came on board and spent 12 years focusing on Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo blends.
L.A. Cetto, the biggest wine producer in Mexico, was founded in 1928 by Don Angelo Cetto. Now it is run by his grandson, Luis Alberto Cetto, who has been a leader in modernizing the Mexican wine industry. L.A. Cetto has been very successful with the Nebbiolo varietal, which is most famously used in the Barolo wines of Piedmont, Italy. Usually thick-skinned and highly-tannic, requiring years to resolve. In the drier climate of Baja California, Nebbiolo tends to be thinner and riper, allowing for higher alcohol content and a different expression of the grape.
In the early 1970s, following the initiatives to bring foreign investment to Mexico, Pedro Domecq arrived in Baja California to expand his international wine portfolio. Now owned by Pernod Ricard, and under the stewardship of Argentinian winemaker Sebastian Suarez, Casa Domecq is thriving as a major player in the Mexican wine industry.
Monte Xanic is first boutique winery of Baja California’s wineries, and it is largely credited with sparking a revolution in Mexican fine wine. It was founded in 1987, the same year Mexico opened its market to foreign wines. This made it difficult to survive, however with persistence, Monte Xanic was able to greatly improve the landscape for itself and other boutique operations. It has even prompted some of the larger producers to focus on quality driven labels.
Another Baja California winery standout is Casa de Piedra. Founded by Hugo D’Acosta and family in 1997, on the principle of making wine true to its origin. Carefully selecting the varietals planted on their three vineyards with special attention to their microclimates. With 17 harvests under their belt, and 15 vintages produced, they continue to create outstanding estate wines worthy of attention.
The future for the wine regions of Baja California is bright, despite the advantages afforded some other countries, namely Argentina and Chile. Areas like Valle de Guadalupe are garnering attention as Mexican wine becomes increasingly attractive, disposable income rises, and its reputation grows. Usually, a thriving wine industry is supported by a vibrant tourism industry. This creates the environment necessary for a successful culinary industry, and so forth. Also, the distance from Valle de Guadalupe to the U.S. makes for a weekend or even day getaway possible. Or why stop there? Thousands of expats already live in Baja California. Either way, Baja California wineries can be found and enjoyed most everywhere, as they should be.
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