A Crush in Guadalupe
Updated: Mar 7
After jumping into our car at San Diego airport it seemed like only moments later we were crossing the Mexican border at San Ysidro – it was shocking to me as we didn’t even slow down; so much for International border controls.
Our drive was glorious as we followed the coastal road of Baja along that beautiful blue Pacific. Large picturesque sand dunes and wide stretches of beach were just asking for a stop. Along the way was a great deal of construction, condominiums, small fishing towns and the “cannot miss” hulking Cristo Del Sagrado Corazon was overlooking the highway at Rosarito. But we had to pull off at Puerto Nuevo, a world famous fishing village known as the “Lobster Village” and a playground for tourists that have been coming here for over 60 years to indulge. It only had 135 residents ten years ago….now with its reputation, the town is booming. Luckily it was lunch time – if not we would have stopped anyway. At Casa de Langasta platters of grilled lobsters tails drenched in butter and huge homemade flour tortillas were served. A little Rose from El Cielo Vineyards rounded off this gourmet treat.
Soon afterwards we pulled on the Highway 3 winding into the Valle de Guadalupe, sailing under the sign Benvendos Ruta del Vino, the reason I came. The people of this region had incredible foresight going back 30 years to make it what it is today. The valley is twice the length of Napa and definitely on the rise with outstanding potential. Its history goes back to 1701 when the Spanish Jesuit priest Juan Jugarte establish vineyards at Mission Loreto in Baja. But a great deal of credit now goes to the Russian Molokan immigrants who fled the Czarist repression coming to Mexico and America around 1905. They are a Christian sect that broke away from Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Their descendants’ today make wines at Bibayoff and Pasion Biba. The Santo Tomás Mission founded in 1791 became Mexico largest wine producer. The Dominicans founded the mission and in 1843 their first vineyard in the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte Valley. Today, this Valle de Guadalupe is the center of Mexican wine production, producing over 75%.
There are four main valleys in Baja that extend perpendicular to the Pacific Ocean, allowing for the entrance of sea breezes and marine fogs to moderate otherwise desert like conditions into Mediterranean microclimates. Baja has humid winters, dry warm summers. Like Southern California, June fogs slow the ripening of fruit. But the main problem is the lack of water, drip systems and reservoirs are needed. The soils of Valle de Guadalupe range from alluvial sand and sandy loam near the valley’s dry riverbed, to granite in the foothills and clay as you climb the hillsides.
What makes it interesting is the Mexican government is not involved in the regulation of the wine industry and with no appellation laws and nothing dictating how wines are made or labeled, therefore you have a wild west approach leading to great deal of experimentation and blending, which can be a good thing. Many of the original winemakers imported a large variety of different grapes to see how they would evolve in the valley. Mexican Syrahs, Nebbiolos, and Tempranillos have a very special flavor, while their whites offer that fresh aroma of fruit and floral that pairs so refreshingly with the warmth of the Mexican summer. The grapes run the whole gamut from single varietals to unique blending showcasing the winemakers artistic spirit. No one variety completely dominates. Tempranillo grapes blossom earlier than the others and so they are picked first — “temprano” is derived from the root word “early.” But it seems that Nebbiolos have found their niche. The Nebbiolo of Baja produces a dark, inky wine unlike any other of its types in the world, having more in common with a Petite Syrah than its cousins in Italy. These vines arrived after World War II but identification tags were lost in transit, so no one knows exactly what varieties they are. I found Zinfandels to have a very unique taste too, perhaps it’s the “salt” mineral content that is spoken about here in the valley.
Olive trees abound by the thousands doting the landscape with a blanket of silvery green. Olives that are grown in this sunny, arid climate offer a rich, uniquely flavored fruit that expresses peppery overtones. One of Baja producer, Bodegas de Santo Tomás, earned two Gold Awards at the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition for their Sevillano and Ascolano mono-varietals. Olive trees are planted on unirrigated hillsides, while the vineyards that are often found adjacent to the olive groves are cultivated are irrigated with drip lines.
Tasting rooms are not the vaulted glam of Napa, but on-site with the production facilities, no limos or party buses, but good shocks are required here. A study in contrasts dirt roads and some sleek architectural wineries like Encuentro Guadalupe high on the hill overlooking the valley or Bruma and Aqua de Vid. But the majority are typical hacienda style. Casual food trucks, barbeques, farm-to-table restaurants provide excellent food from top chefs that really care about their local ingredients.
Hotels, B & B s and glamping options are here. But you will not find any of those mass market names. I stayed at El Cielo a lovely five-star encampment with 30 super spacious villas each contained 3 expansive suites, from the master suites on the ground floor with their own private outdoor space and firepits these are made for total comfort and to come and stay awhile, to the two junior suites on the second floor. I had wonderful experiences from tasting their wines, dining at Latitudes 32, going through the vineyard and to cocktails under a full moon and stars.
But the most wonderful experience was meeting Astromeda at El Cielo, she is one of six Harris Hawks that supervise the skies, removing any small pests from the vineyards. The eco-friendly use of falconry for bird abatement in vineyards harnesses the power of instinct in both predator and prey. The mere sight of a raptor or its shadow triggers smaller birds to flee or find cover. Raptors are ferocious hunters that can see up to eight times better than a human, spot prey from more than 100 feet in the air, and dive at more than 200 miles an hour. Interestingly the hawks are used at different times of the day as birds can determine a schedule. Stealth is required to keep everyone on their toes. Also at El Cielo they use two beagle hounds to discourage voles, which are herbivores and they only eat plants, having a taste for trunks and roots of the vines. This is why you will find many vineyards here with bare ground between the vines. El Cielo commitment to sustainability is also shown with the solar panel field.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t want to miss it and it turned out to be a total surprise. I cannot wait to go back and rediscover and uncover what I missed. This valley still holds a great many secrets to discover and you can actually feel the eagerness for development here. A gem that is still under the radar. Go quickly and enjoy.
My Best recommendations:
Check out the events around Fiestas de le Vendemia
Stay at El Cielo Winery and Resort
Dine at La Cocina de Dona Esthela, best authentic breakfast! Fina Altozano-http://fincaltozano.com/contacto , Deckmans and Corazon de Tierra
Meet the winemakers at El Mogor, Casa Magoni, Villa Montefiori, Bruma, Vina de Frannes, and Tres Mujeres.
Pick up La Ruta as a guide.