Discover why ‘Made in Mexico’ has the hip crowd buzzing as Shannon Harley explores an under-the-radar New World wine oasis.
We explore one of the world’s hottest wine regions – in Mexico.
“BAJA IS THE YOUNGEST STATE IN MEXICO, AND WE ARE CREATING OUR OWN HISTORY AND IDENTITY.”
Tequila, tacos, mezcal, margaritas. All things that spring to mind when you think of Mexican exports. Wine? Not so much. And when you think of Baja California, surf breaks and fish tacos certainly dominate the imagination over images of wine connoisseurs swirling and spitting sauvignon blanc, grenache and tempranillo. But for those in the know, the wine-making renaissance this Central American country is experiencing comes as no surprise. As a consequence, regions such as Valle de Guadalupe – a dry, rocky valley located in Baja’s remote backcountry, two hour’s drive south of San Diego – are having their day in the sun.
While the revival comes courtesy of the New World zeal of modern-day producers, wine-making in Mexico dates back to the 16th century. In fact, Mexico was the birthplace of viticulture in the New World and is home to the oldest winery in the Americas – Casa Madero in Coahuila in the country’s north east. Wine trickled into Mexico with the Spanish missionaries. Following the Spanish, a wave of Russian immigrants – Molokans – fleeing religious persecution during the Russian Revolution settled in Baja after receiving government land grants and played a key role in cementing modern vinification techniques. Today, wineries exist in several states where Mediterranean climates offer that magical mix of high altitude, intense sun, cooling ocean winds and low overnight temperatures, including Sonora, Zacatecas, Querétaro, Coahuila and Baja. It’s in the latter where you’ll fifind the country’s hottest new wine destination.
Valle de Guadalupe’s success hinges, in large part, on visionary brothers Hugo and Alejandro D’Acosta. In 2004, Hugo put the wine-making skills he’d learned in France into practice and opened La Escuelita as a place to pass on his skills in the art of enology. Locals and expats have since flflocked to ‘the little school’. Meanwhile, architect Alejandro is responsible for many of the region’s iconic cellar doors. Known for ‘upcycling’, his style is evident in Vena Cava’s upturned fifishing boats marooned in the desert, or the Mayan-style pyramids – made from reclaimed materials – of Clos de Tres Cantos. As for what you’ll fifind wine-wise in this austere landscape, well, a variety of grapes are grown, and no one style dominates. But expect intense wines that pack a far fruitier punch than Old World counterparts, a result of climatic extremes and dry-farming techniques. This frontier mentality of fearless experimentation has created a unique terroir, where chefs and winemakers alike are combining local and international ingredients and nous to create something truly hecho en Mexico (made in Mexico).
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Not all of the wineries have restaurants, but those worth a stop for a wine tasting include Clos de Tres Cantos with its spectacular cellar door featuring walls of recycled wine bottles for insulation that double as light installations. Monte Xanic is Mexico’s first boutique winery and one of the most highly regarded in the region. Sip their award-winning whites, which have scooped medals at international competitions as far afield as Portugal and Bordeaux. The modernist cellar door nestles into the rugged landscape and overlooks a palm-fringed oasis. Lechuza Vineyard is best-known for its chardonnay (good enough to make it on the menu at French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s California fifine diner). Book ahead for an appointment
only tasting on Lechuza’s verandah overlooking the vines. “Baja is the youngest state in Mexico, and we are creating our own history and identity now,” says Fernando Perez Castro, who owns sister wineries Finca La Carrodilla and Hacienda La
Lomita, which is home to the open-air paddock-to-plate restaurant TrasLomita – a top spot for lunch. The vineyard practises organic and biodynamic viticulture, which extend to the kitchen garden, where all produce on chef Sheyla Alvarado’s effortlessly elegant menu is grown, while meat is sourced from neighbouring organic farms. A meal here is a sophisticated yet relaxed depiction of the seasons, including ‘green ceviche’ marinated in a piquant aguachile sauce made from habanero chillies, suckling pig tacos – the tortillas coloured black from onion ash – house-made ricotta with grilled asparagus, and heirloom vegetables served unconventionally with mole –a prime example of the rule breaking that defines this vibrant, youthful winery.
“EXPECT INTENSE WINES THAT PACK A FRUITIER PUNCH THAN OLD WORLD COUNTERPARTS, A RESULT OF CLIMATIC EXTREMES AND DRY-FARMING TECHNIQUES.”
Phil Gregory and wife Eileen could be found sailing boats around the world before they bought the plot that is now home to their winery and boutique stay,
Vena Cava. Phil explains that the cellar door’s iconic upturned boats reflect his past. However, the complexity of Vena Cava’s sparkling rosé belies the winemaker’s novice status and cements his place on
terra firma. A sulphur-free, natural sparkling that is turned by hand, it has a rich, yeasty nose and flavours of apple and ripe peach. Enjoy it at sunset from the remote glass box that resembles an ice cube sitting in the open desert that is the estate restaurant,
Corazón de Tierra. The five-course tasting menu here is paired to Gregory’s renegade, minimal-intervention wines, which include sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, an experimental orange wine, and audacious blends of tempranillo, grenache and cabernet sauvignon that would have the purists squirming in their seats.
There’s a traveller’s maxim: ‘Bad road, good tourists. Good road, bad tourists’, and so it is at
La Cocina de Doña Esthela, a Valle institution that lies at the end of an extremely bouncy, pot-holed dirt track. Chef-owner Esthela’s feast has been dubbed the “best breakfast in the world”, and you’ll need to book in advance and buckle in, as it is one hell of
a ride. The hearty Mexican homecooking includes corn pancakes, meltingly tender birria braised lamb in a rich tomato and chilli sauce, machaca con huevos (spiced shredded beef with scrambled eggs), and the must-eat
borrego tatemado (slow-roasted lamb served with warm tortillas). Sip cafe de olla, a local specialty of sweet black coffee infused with orange, cinnamon and clove served in traditional clay cups. A word to the wise: arrive (very) hungry.
Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman cuts a striking figure among the smoking grills and racks of the completely woodfired kitchen at his restaurant, Deckman’s at Mogor. Wearing goggles and intermittently emerging from the clouds of smoke to check the tortillas smoking on the blazing caja china roasting box, Deckman promotes a slow-food ethos at his steampunk- meets-bush kitchen, and it encapsulates the intoxicating, raw beauty of the valley. Surrounded by all that scorched desert, it’s easy to forget that you’re less than an hour’s drive from Ensenada, Baja’s popular coastal fishing town. Deckman’s winery is a reminder of the ocean, with a line-up of raw seafood dishes, such as dressed oysters and clam ceviche, setting the scene for a degustation that honours provenance. Vegetables, lamb, eggs and olive oil are all estate-grown, cheese is from nearby Ojos Negros, seafood is sustainable, and the scent of smoke infuses every dish. Arrive at Fauna in time to catch the sun setting behind the giant petrified tree that sits in a central pond casting a theatrical silhouette against a gold background. It’s a stunning sight and that’s before you sit down to ex-Noma chef David Castro Hussong’s envelope-pushing menu, which is served in an earthy indoor-outdoor setting and paired with natural and low-intervention wines. The Noma-effect of minimalist dishes that convey a strong sense of place can be seen in a pretty prawn and jicama ceviche, a sculptural wedge of charred cabbage, and a plate of glazed duck (a common meat here) accompanied by a glossy puddle of mole. Another highlight with an arboreal twist is celeb chef Javier Plascencia’s restaurant, Animalón, a fairytale pop-up (which never actually popped-down) on the remote Finca Altozano farm under the drooping branches of a 200-year-old oak tree. Don’t be fooled by the earthy setting and outdoor kitchen, this is precise cooking delivered over a lengthy tasting menu that displays French technique and highlights local ingredients and traditions. Chicatana ants feature as ‘caviar’ atop a local mussel relocated to an edible shell that has taken three days to craft. The pièce de résistance is lamb barbacoa, cooked in clay over a caja china, then cracked open at the table and served with salsa
arbol, a spicy, smoky slick of roasted red chilli, garlic and oil. The soulful sounds of Chavela Vargas – Frida Kahlo’s lover and Pedro Almodovar’s muse – dance around you in the flickering candlelight, rounding out the magic of the evening.
As he puts down a date and bacon tart, Malva chef Roberto Alcocer reveals: “Baja is a big producer of dates. No-one knows that, but that’s what we are doing here, showcasing local ingredients.” There are also carob and olive trees growing in the valley, he says, which I find on the tasting menu in the form of edible twigs. The wooden deck and open kitchen make this joint feel like a low-key affair, but Alcocer reminds me: “The people here are relaxed, but not the techniques.” Choyote (choko) aguachile is a clever play on this traditionally raw marinated seafood starter. Smoked fish salpicon tacos, the fish minced with coriander, onion and chilli like a cooked tartare, elevate the ubiquitous street food. The chef has his own farm and Malbec label, which includes a reserve down to a rosé, plus experimental wine label Mina Penélope with restaurant sommelier Veronica Corona, who happened to train in the Barossa.
CLOCKWISE ( from top left): dirt roads and untouched landscapes are part of the valley’s rustic appeal; chef Sheyla Alvarado in her outdoor woodfired kitchen at TrasLomita restaurant; Vena Cava celebrates its owners’ link to the sea; the Baja coastline.
CLOCKWISE ( from left): Drew Deckman in action; the clifftop bar at Cuatro Cuatros; breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela; glamping at Cuatro Cuatros; the famous ceviche and peanut salsa tostada at La Guerrerense.
CLOCKWISE: Encuentro Guadalupe’s hillside pods and minimalist rooms; Fauna’s petrified tree; dine outdoors at Animalón; (inset) the restaurant’s lamb barbecoa is cooked in clay over an open fire.