By Guest Wine Chix, Linda Milks
Valle De Guadalupe – Renowned Wine Region
What could be better than Mexican food and great red wine? Not much. However, when I was lucky enough to travel with a group from IFWTWA (International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association), I learned there was much more to enjoy in the Guadalupe Valley of Baja.
While the Guadalupe Valley has 15-18 year-old vines and is truly in its adolescence, it produces 95 percent of the wine in Mexico. Most of the wine is red, and it is delicious. Luckily for Southern Californians and visitors to Southern California, the Valle de Guadalupe is only a couple of hours from the border and 14 miles from Ensenada.
We traveled by van arranged by Baja Tourism. Our first trip after crossing the border was down a narrow dirt road, causing us to wonder where exactly we were headed. We arrived at La Cocina de Dona Esthela and what a treat was in store for us. Dona Esthela greets her guests with a warm and friendly smile and continues to check with them to make sure everything is perfect. We started with steaming mugs of Café de la Olla (sweetened coffee flavored with cinnamon). As we sat at the long table and watched the corn tortillas being handmade, we were served one amazing dish after another. Two of my favorites were the shredded beef Machacha and the Borrego Tatemado, shredded wood-roasted lamb served in its own juice. I also enjoyed the Chorizo con Huevo. There were plenty of accompaniments for each dish too, such as limes, cilantro, onion, and several salsas. Muy delicioso!
Our next stop was Finca La Carrodilla. My first impression of this winery was just how exquisite the landscape appeared with a myriad of native shrubs and cacti. We climbed steps to the entrance with a nearby roof garden that focuses on a shrine to the Virgen de La Carrodilla (the protector of the vines).
Owner, Fernando Perez Castro, and Public Relations Director, Keiko Nishikawa, greeted our group at this winery, the first winery in Guadalupe to be certified organic. Fernando explained that their emphasis was on creating a biodynamic environment, an environment where everything is related to each other and part of a single system—the vegetable garden, the cows, the grapes, and the bees.
Finca grows Granacha, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Cabernet, and Chenin Blanc–grapes suited to the climate. Finca La Carrodilla only irrigates at night. Last year the winery had only 3 inches of rainfall, but this year it has had 12 inches. This area always has wind which keeps the vines healthy and has very little humidity. The temperature fluctuates 50-60 degrees from the hottest to the coldest days.
Fernando’s passion for his wine showed as we sampled an elegant and feminine Shiraz with an interesting lipstick aroma that was dry but jammy to the end. He explained that they don’t crush the grapes but rather just break the skin so that natural juicing takes place.
His love of wine was reflected by his statement, “Wine should be for everyone. It shouldn’t be pretentious. Wine should be shared.” We also enjoyed a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged in French Oak. We learned that the winemaker for Finca La Carrodilla is Gustavo Gonzales who is known for his work in Napa Valley.
One of the highlights of Finca La Carrodilla was meeting Jimena, the agronomist, who guided us through the outside organic garden where we picked carrots and took in the aroma of fresh basil. An organic, local garden emphasizes eating seasonally. Finca La Carrodilla supplies chefs as well as local consumers with boxes of organic produce delivered to Ensenada.
Our tour led us to Estacion de Oficios and a visit with Oenologist, Thomas Egli. Estacion de Oficios’ central theme is production and teaching of wine making. I could not help but be amused and delighted by the recycling taking place in the building structures from old wine staves to box springs covered with stucco. What a wise use of resources!
At Estacion de Oficios students buy the grapes and for four Saturdays they study how to crush, ferment, bottle, and rack their own wine. The facilities were originally an ancient olive oil plant and the original giant stone used to crush the olives was from Toulouse in 1894.
Estacion de Oficios serves as an incubator of new wine producers. They focus on the practical such as vinticulture, winemaking, microbiology and aging of wine. In addition to wine, at Estacion de Oficios, preparation and packing of olive oils takes place. All olive oils are cold pressed and there is only one pressing.
We were shown a wonderful traditional Oaxacan still which was used to make mezcal. Today they distill wine fermentation residue and other fruits like oranges.
Back in the van, we were headed to Clos de Tres Cantos Winery, an enterprise with a social responsibility. When we approached the winery, we saw three pyramids. We later learned this style was selected because it mimics the environment and the shape also provides a cooler atmosphere. The stone of the buildings is about 12 percent quartz. Glancing at the windows, we saw they used old wine bottles which stand for enlightenment and knowledge. This was truly a beautifully designed winery and one I wish we could experience locally in California.
Once again, we experienced great use of recycled and natural materials from the Valle de Guadalupe. The overall eye-catching beauty, unlike any winery I’ve seen, was designed by the architect Alejandro D’Acosta.
At one corner of one of the pyramids (which was the storage facility) the corner was constructed of scraps of wood left over from cutting the triangular shape of the interior ceiling. The two corners swung out to make an L-shaped door—an amazing design. Our gracious hosts and owners, Joaquin Moya and Maria Benitez, guided us down into the monastery cellar of the first pyramid and behind a mammoth chalkboard door that rotated to the barrel storage area complete with a vast expanse of a ceiling and windows replete with golden and greenish hues from sunlight streaming through the glass of wine bottles that comprised the windows. We were told to talk softly because the wines were sleeping.
Now it was time to venture to another pyramid, the tasting room. On our way, we passed a very eclectic seating area consisting of easy chairs that had been covered in concrete and were arranged in a circle around a working firepit.
We entered the tasting room through two massive glass doors that rotated outward to provide a total expanse of the courtyard. Once we entered the tasting room, we gathered around a large table soon to be laden with glasses of mouth-filling, rich, concentrated wines and platters of creative and scrumptious appetizers prepared by the two chefs at Clos de Tres Cantos, Javier Suarez and Francisco de Landero.
Because the soil is sandy and course, Joaquin explained to us they grow grapes that produce well in that type of soil. We were lucky enough to sample a variety of wines from this winery. One of the wines we sampled was called Nada and consisted of Tempranillo and Petite Syrah. A glance at the wine conjured up an inky purple color. This was followed by an aroma of roses and lavender and tastes of cherry, plum, and caramel. Nada was soft yet spicy and very smooth with a long finish.
Another favorite was a beautiful bright crimson red called Duda, a blend of Carignon and Mouvedre, aged 12 months in French Oak and 8 months in the bottle. The aroma of Duda was of cherries, strawberries and violets. A taste showed flavors of cherries, strawberries, and some pepper and cloves. Duda was well balanced and expressed abundant tannins. Superb!
Chef Javier and Chef Francisco prepared several platters with locally grown produce. My favorite was a stack on a toast crisp of shrimp ceviche, green apple, grapefruit, marinated cucumber, red onion, and a small circle of red chili, bringing all kinds of flavors to my palate. I loved this appetizer so much that I made it for guests the following week. Another wonderful taste treat served on a thin jicama slice consisted of crab, Dijon mustard, dill, red beet and sprouts.
As we headed to our hotel for the night, we took one last glance outside to discover the winery dog looking over the valley at the gastronomic garden scene with tables and
chairs in the shadows of the trees where meals are served during the weekend. The sun was slowly setting on all the natural beauty of the valley.
Our drive to Casa Mayoral was along a windy dirt road where we arrived at an avenue of trees on both sides and gardens greeting us in front of our stay for the night. We were later told the property was empty land when the owners purchased the property 25 years ago, and they have planted a variety of local trees, shrubs, and flowers. Casa Mayoral, a small, boutique hotel, consists of four sustainably designed independent casitas complete with air conditioning and built in a modern craftsman style. These casitas were designed by the owners’ son and constructed just two years ago. Our room was very large with two king-sized beds and a large bathroom with a walk-in shower. In addition to air conditioning, there was a ceiling fan and windows that opened for fresh air as well as a patio in back where we sat to enjoy the tranquil valley view, complete with ostriches grazing in the distance.
In the morning, we wondered along the flower filled path to the outdoor patio seating area where freshly brewed coffee, pastries and fruit awaited us. Once we were seated and enjoying our coffee, the owners brought us large plates full of Chilaquiles with Fried Eggs and Refried Beans fresh from their kitchen.
Casa Mayoral owners, Jaime Mayoral and his wife were very friendly and helpful. I would highly recommend a stay here while visiting the Valle de Guadalupe.
After breakfast we journeyed to Ensenada to the famous food stand of Sabina Bandera called La Guerrerense. Sabina’s seafood cart is a required stop in Ensenada. She has won “Best in show” at the L.A. Street Food Fest as well as wonderful reviews by Travel & Leisure and Gourmet magazines. I was delighted with the combination of flavors of my tostado consisting of mango, fish, crab, habanero, cilantro, and tomato. Sabina has created 13 different salsas, using ingredients from her own garden–organic, and natural, with no preservatives.
Off we went to the Museo Del Vino, Museum of the Vine. The museum is divided into themes—growing of the vine, to grape processing, to bottling. The museum displays show that wine started 6,000 years ago in Iran and Georgia and then Egypt and the Mediterranean. Georgia was the cradle of wine. The first colony of Russians in the Valle de la Guadalupe settled in 1906 and planted the first grapes there in 1917. The architecture of the museum, with most of the building built into the hillside, adds to the pleasure of visiting this time capsule of wine.
Vina de Liceaga Winery welcomed us with a variety of tastings, from a Rose of Granacha, to Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet, as well as several blends. Located just 6 miles off the Pacific Ocean and 820 feet above sea level, Vina de Liceaga Winery grows on 18 acres and produces 10,000 bottles a year. In addition to robust reds, the winery produces Italian Grappa which we all enjoyed tasting. Eduardo Liceaga, founder of the winery, began his first vintage of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in 1993. My favorite variety was the 43 Y 60, a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 25% Syrah. This blend was named after the birth dates of the two owners and supplied our taste buds with flavors of cherry, blackberry, cassis, pepper and then chocolate and coffee. Delightful!
Our tour van drove us to yet another amazing winery called Quatro Quatros, a winery that is only 7 years old. The winery is part of a master planned development. The resounding theme of this development is “Architecture Between the Vineyard and the Sea”, an exacting description of plans for what is to come. It consists of 2,000 acres of property with 20 acres of vineyards.
Upon arriving at the tasting room, we sampled a new Grenache rose, a moderately sweet sipping wine perfect for summer. The only white wine they make is a Sauvignon Blanc that we found to be elegant, dry and crisp. The third wine poured for us was a robust blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, and Merlot. We found this inky-purple wine to contain an aromatic nose with complex flavors of herbs and dark fruit flavors, validating the success of superb red wines in this valley.
Quatro Quatros is designed to be a residential zone where you can live among the vineyards and olive trees and yet be near the sea. Part of the purchase of a new home will be a share in the winery. Currently there exists a restaurant, a winery, and 14 cabanas for luxurious “glamping”.
Much to our delight, we traveled as guests who stay at the cabanas can do, down a narrow, winding dirt road to the edge of the land overlooking the sea where a rustic outdoor patio and bar are constructed. On weekends, as many as 100 guests nightly enjoy the wines and local beers overlooking the sea from high up on these steep cliffs.
Our trip to the Valle of Guadalupe had come to an end, but we had one more experience and that was Tijuana’s Food Garden Plaza Rio, a mall-based food hall in the city’s Zona Rio, the main modern business district of Tijuana. This 11,000 square foot space holds 12 unique kitchens featuring some of the region’s best chefs. Two of the chefs are from San Diego—Chef Javier Plascencia who presides over an oyster and ceviche bar, and Chef Martin San Roman who operates a rotisserie.
Jose Rodrigo Figueroa Sanchez, the 24-year old chef at Don Zefe, provides an elegant take on Mexican classics with such fresh seafood as tuna, yellowtail, mussels, and sea urchins. Truly fresh and authentic!
It was a fast and furious trip to a beautiful natural region with scenic winding roads among mountains and overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean. We all look forward to exploring more of the Valle de Guadalupe in the future.
If you plan to enjoy this region, be sure to look at the Discover Baja California website at http://discoverbajacalifornia.com. When planning trips to the wineries, be sure to call ahead for appointments and hours because they can vary. Enjoy all that the Valle de Guadalupe has to offer.