Global flavours

Dis­cover why ‘Made in Mex­ico’ has the hip crowd buzzing as Shan­non Har­ley ex­plores an un­der-the-radar New World wine oa­sis.

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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.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JAIME KOWAL

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.

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