Wine Soaked

By / Magazine / January 24th, 2008 / 1

While the Mexican wines available here lack the elegance and sophistication of the New World wines we’re getting from New Zealand and Argentina, on the terrain they tell a whole different story.

Just one hour into a long road trip from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas we spotted a sign for a “Ruta del Vino” by the side of Baja’s main highway. It pointed eastward at a barren landscape of hills strewn with boulders that looked like they could only have fallen from the sky — not the place you’d expect to find much of anything, let alone a winery … For a trip that promised to be heavy in desert, cactus, beer and margarita, the sign made us wonder: was the wine here worth a detour?

Bodegas de Santo Tomás: Returning to the land

Intrigued, when we arrived in Ensenada, half an hour later, we sauntered into Santo Tomás’s downtown wine-production facilities for exploratory research. Our guide, Alejandro Galindo, eager to hand off an imminent cruise-ship-load of tourists to his colleague, was delighted to escort our trio around the bottling plant, the cellar and onto a tasting. His enthusiasm was clearly expressed in his liberal pour-and-chat technique. We were off to a roaring start: the wines were all consistently good.

Seven or eight wines later, in the midst of a mini-epiphany about Mexican wine, we learned how winemaker Laura Zarnora — Mexico’s only female oenologist — had played an instrumental role in focusing Santo Tomás’s efforts on introducing “nobler” European vines and experimenting with varietals. The 2004 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, all smooth green apple with notes of pineapple, is an apparently rare 50/50 blend of those two grapes; the 60/40 pairing of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon was exciting, unusual and fruity. But even more impressive were the very-well-balanced 2004 Merlot, with its solid black-cherry aroma and lovely taste of prune, and the 2002 Sirocco (a Brussels and San Francisco medal winner), a Syrah aged in French oak barrels that’s complex, brilliantly dark and fruity with hints of leather, cinnamon and caramel.

As a parting tip, Galindo mentioned that Santo Tomás was busy building a California-style hotel and visitor centre to showcase the valley where its grapes are grown and he encouraged us to double back to the Ruta del Vino before heading to the Santo Tomás Valley further south.

Emboldened though still slightly skeptical (how many Mexican wines have you seen on your local shelves?), we retraced our steps to the turnoff to the Guadalupe Valley. Motoring inland along Highway 3, it wasn’t long into our detour before we started coming across welcome signs of human activity: planted vines as far as the eye could see, interspersed with olive trees and orange groves. True to desert form, though, the soil appeared sandy — a mix of orange clay and crushed granite.

Vinos Bibayoff: Old World artisan traditions

Though we’d been warned about taking our tiny two-door Chevy rental off road, we gambled on a few bumpy miles of dirt track to get to one of the more intriguing and historic wineries of the area, a place run by the grandson of Russian immigrants. We arrived to find it closed — an auspicious start. Just as we were turning the car around, however, a smiling older gentleman clutching bottles of wine came sauntering toward us: “You might as well get out of the car seeing as you’ve come this far,” he said in accented English. Winery owner David Bibayoff was having a few friends over for a leisurely Sunday lunch: he’d come down to the tasting room to purloin a few of his wines.

He escorted us all into the storage area — his friends had by now come in search of him and the wine. We hadn’t been there more than five minutes when he insisted we join them for lunch. “My friend’s son — he’s a chef — is up at the house now just preparing some squid. You like squid?” Suddenly starving, we tore through his 2004 offerings: a Cabernet/Zinfandel, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a sweet and not unpleasant 2005 Colombard and a stunning Port, a blend of his Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Bibayoff produces just 500 cases a year (all distributed locally, sadly), using the rest of his acreage to grow grapes to be sold as fruit.

When prompted to talk about his wines, Bibayoff stressed the importance of holding on to the “artisanal ways”: “You should taste the grapes not the barrel,” he warned us, playfully refusing to discuss his methods. Gauging by the high quality of the wine, there’s a lot more method here than meets the eye. In fact, a few drinks later, Bibayoff revealed that he consults with oenologist Victor Torres Allegre, who also works for a couple of other wineries in the valley. Taken by his Port, I pressed on. “Don’t ask me about percentages [and methods]! I call it ‘lazy harvest.’” The secret, apparently, lies in his laissez-faire attitude: he leaves the grapes on the vine “too long,” picks them “eventually,” then adds home-made brandy to stop the fermentation of the grape must.

Up at the big house, the scene was just as improvised. The cook, knocking back aged tequila by the mug-full, didn’t bat an eyelid when our trio of gringos walked in ahead of the owner. He was busy sautéing some breaded super-squid, which had the thickness of a swordfish steak and was freshly plucked from the Sea of Cortez. Later, he scrambled some eggs and chilli in the squid’s cooking juices — its pungent and salty flavour a welcome break from our diet of refried beans, fish tacos and huevos rancheros. We washed it all down with still-unlabelled but just as well-rounded 2005 vintages. The afternoon unfolded raucously, peppered by Bibayoff’s lively tales of growing up the son of Russian immigrants in a valley settled by all the nationalities of the Old World rainbow. In fact, the family perfected its winemaking over the years with input from fellow Italian and French settlers.

Bibayoff has only praise for neighbours and fellow small-quantity producers like Barón Balché and organic producer Mogor Badán. While Casa Pedro Domecq and LA Cetto dominate the area in the mass-production stakes (together, they account for nearly 80 percent of the 1.5 million cases of wine Mexico produces yearly), apparently the rest of the valley is operating not in the shadow of these two world-exporting giants but in complete disavowal of their “old-school,” large-scale methods. The emphasis in this valley two-thirds the size of Napa is clearly on terroir.

Just one hour into a long road trip from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas we spotted a sign for a “Ruta del Vino” by the side of Baja’s main highway. It pointed eastward at a barren landscape of hills strewn with boulders that looked like they could only have fallen from the sky — not the place you’d expect to find much of anything, let alone a winery … For a trip that promised to be heavy in desert, cactus, beer and margarita, the sign made us wonder: was the wine here worth a detour?


Casa de Piedra: At the forefront of terroir

The Guadalupe Valley has no greater “terroirist” than winemaker Hugo D’Acosta. A self-appointed ambassador for the region, D’Acosta tirelessly promotes the idiosyncrasy of Baja’s wine region in his wines, in the winemaking seminars he orchestrates yearly and in his ability to convince international partners to fund his wine ambitions. His Casa de Piedra produces only a small-batch Chardonnay and a Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend that both command a high price but tend to sell out before they’ve finished fermenting!

D’Acosta and partners recently acquired 450 acres of vineyards previously controlled by Domecq and LA Cetto. The new vineyard, Paralelo, lies deeper in the valley and includes Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Merlot and Petite Sirah. It will likely give him a lot more material to draw on than his boutique winery does, though he says he’s looking forward to uncovering the subtleties that the additional distance from the coast and its cool ocean breeze will yield in the Paralelo Chardonnay and Tempranillo/Cabernet blends.

A roadside stop for fish tacos later, we still had twenty wineries to choose from along a twenty-five-kilometre stretch of road. It was time to put the Chevy to the test and set off through quasi-otherworldly scenery along a bumpy but irresistible dirt road.

Château Camou: The sophisticated art of wines

Set at the foot of jagged hills, Château Camou’s imposing architectural style harks back to the days of whitewashed adobe and heavy carved wooden doors. Much less daunting was the welcome we received — so encouraging in fact that, having the place to ourselves, we boldly opted for the full-out tasting of seven wines.

Between sips, we learned that Château Camou is run according to “French principles”: intensive vineyard-maintenance techniques, grapes harvested by hand, carefully controlled pre-fermentation temperatures for the grapes and more. The vineyards here and elsewhere in the Guadalupe Valley benefit from its east–west orientation, which allows the Pacific breeze to be funnelled directly through it. The microclimate, reminiscent of what you’ll find in the Mediterranean regions, is one of intense daytime heat and cool evening air. The resulting low yields do indeed produce deeply concentrated fruit: at Camou, 90 acres of land result in a modest 15,000 cases a year.

The whites (a 2003 Blanc de Blancs and a 1999 Château Camou) are particularly successful — both blends of Chenin/Semillon Blanc/Chardonnay were lively, balanced and had a smooth finish; they both showed clear pineapple and melon, though the 1999 also featured hints of lemon, mint and vanilla. The Flor de Guadalupe reds were disappointing, though: we couldn’t discern the promised red fruits and roses in the 2002 Claret, being hit instead with not-so-smooth tannins and an overarching briny whiff. Just how close were we to the Pacific? Château Camou really does come into its own with its eponymous 2001 line, however. These Gran Vinos lay claim to the floral and red ripe fruit aromas we’ve come to expect from a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend — the additional cassis, coffee and spice flavours gave these wines a mellow but long finish. Our favourite though was the 2001 Zinfandel — a full-bodied, deep red with some darker tones and some excellent fruit, mint and chocolate aromas.

Viña de Liceaga: Mexican fine wines

This small husband-and-wife operation lies at the entrance to the valley close to the Pacific. The elevated terrain creates apparently ideal growing conditions for the varieties they’ve chosen to showcase. The Liceagas have ambitious plans to be producing 10,000 cases a year before 2010. Let’s hope they do: we found their two Reserva Merlot/Cabernet Franc blends to be elegant, well-structured and reminiscent of French Bordeaux, though one is aged in American oak while the other lies in French oak for two years. The Castillo de las Minas white (a Chenin Blanc varietal) and the red (a fruity and vanilla-tinged Grenache/Merlot/Cabernet Franc) were equally pleasant and well-balanced.

Our detour via the Ruta del Vino was full of impromptu surprises. Wines were elegant, fruit-forward numbers whose sophistication, length and variety almost never failed to impress; not as jammy and big-and-bold as their northern California counterparts, they seem closer to structured Italian and Spanish numbers. The producers still answer their own phones if you feel the need to call ahead. The industry works actively to show off its Old World roots. Be prepared to embrace rustic charm, spontaneous hospitality, an utter lack of pretension and … amusing suggestions on how to smuggle cases of must-have wine back across the border.


Looking at the small things that make life great and the people who create them.

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