Make a road trip into Mexico’s wine country

One of the historical wine regions of Mexico happens to be just a quick two-hour drive from San Diego in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. This area was where a migration of wine makers took place in the 16th century and has evolved into an unnoticed and unappreciated wine making area.

This region is producing some really good wines now, but I wouldn’t go as far as the Wall Street Journal calling Valle de Guadalupe the next Napa. That’s going way too far. There are about 50 wineries there today that produce about 90 percent of all Mexican wines. But, then again Mexico is known for Tequila, Mescal and Cerveza.

The wines are worth the try and one great way is at the fabulous harvest festival that wraps up Aug. 17 that has been held now for 24 years. This particular harvest festival uses the Latin term of Vendimia.

The Valle de Guadalupe Vendimia Festival scheduled events at most of the wineries of the valley this year. The kickoff event features 40 wineries in a big tasting event at the Riveria del Pacifico. This event sells out every year and if you want to plan ahead, you’ll want to buy tickets and reserve rooms well ahead of the event next year.

This harvest festival has a number of busses that pick up groups and takes them to the wineries for tastings. The bus tour/tasting trips are sponsored by Provino, the area’s wine promotion agency.

This year’s line-up included around 15 concerts with wine tastings, at least a dozen special wine-food pairings events that highlighted two or three wineries working cooperatively, and formal dining events — some with six courses — that matched wines with both international cuisine and local Baja California dishes.

The Guadalupe Valley is just one of seven valleys between Ensenada and Tecate that are dedicated to the cultivation of grapes. The valleys produce 1.2 millions cases of wine a year, of which 25 percent is exported abroad and that amount is growing.

The wineries in this area of northwestern Mexico seem almost detached from the rest of Mexico. They are idyllic farms in a peaceful setting that is not a rural, third-world setting. Some of the wineries are as modern as those operations in Napa Valley and other small operations reminded me of family operations in northern Italy.

It seems that the majority of the growers have trended toward the most popular red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo. There are some very old vineyards in the region, and even some abandoned vines in some areas still producing after 300 years or more. Remember, these vineyards started up even before the oldest New Mexican vines, some 200 years before anything in California.

The range of red wines was full-flavored with the average running a touch sweeter than what you’ll find among the Cabernet Sauvignons of Stag’s Leap.

The grapes enjoy an earlier start and can ripen without much risk of bad weather. Even with a monsoon flow of rains, that particular local environment won’t receive much rainfall and tropical storms typically miss that part of the west.

What is most striking about the evolution behind wine making out of the Valle de Guadalupe are the single vineyard styles that are emerging. They’ve learned not just to make the “Private Reserve” wines of the best grapes from three or four vineyards, but to create from the best of those steady vineyards. Those wines are getting released by vineyard name with surprisingly good results.

On the white side of the vineyards from Valle de Guadelupe, there are decent Chardonnays and a couple blended wines, with one general characteristic, a mineral quality that was almost like saltiness. It seemed to be complementary with the Chardonnays aged in oak, but I found that characteristic somewhat conflicting with the lighter Sauvignon Blanc.

Overall the whites will be more difficult to find than the red wines from Baja California.

I’ve been assured by Provino and the people at the Fiestas de la Vendimia that more distribution is coming to New Mexico. Right now nearly all of the wines exported go through California. So, if you want to try some, check some California online vendors and have it shipped to New Mexico. With wines costing between $9 and $40, you’ll have plenty to choose from and the shipping isn’t too much from the west coast.

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