January 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Baja California: better quality, bigger market

by Paul Franson
Baja California: better quality, bigger market
Monte Xanic Winery overlooks the vineyards of Guadalupe Valley.
If the United States had been a little less generous, Baja California might have been the 51st state--and its wines widely consumed instead of little known among Americans.

When the U.S. wrenched half of Mexico's territory away in the Mexican War of 1846, it originally considered keeping Baja California, too, but gave in to the Mexican fear of having much of its West Coast blanketed by another country. So after stealing California and the whole Southwest, we graciously left our neighboring nation the mostly barren peninsula, and even set the border far enough north to provide a land bridge to the mainland of Mexico. (Baja California means Lower California; Mexicans refer to the U.S. state as Alta California, or Upper California.)

This political border, however, obscures the similarity of the climate and terrain of the two Californias. The coast region of northern Baja California is very much like that of Alta California, and its coastal valleys offer similar marine-influenced growing conditions. While winegrapes are grown in the higher elevations of the Mexican mainland, Baja California seems especially amenable to better wines, and 90% of Mexico's wines are produced in this region.

The coastal valleys of northern Baja California around Ensenada are remarkably similar to those of Santa Barbara County and some other parts of California, and the winemakers of Baja are exploiting those similarities to increasingly produce wines comparable to those grown north of the border.

In doing so, they're overcoming a long history of mediocre winemaking. European winegrapes arrived in Mexico in 1697 with the early Spanish padres, who needed wine for communion. That wine was mostly made from the Mission grape, an undistinguished red vinifera variety widely planted in Argentina as Criolla and in Chile as Païs--and even in California until fairly recently.

The Lay Of The Land

Those who picture Baja California as a cactus-strewn desert or tropical beach aren't wrong--but they're not picturing northwest Baja California. It's mountainous in part, with broad fertile plains extending to the Pacific in many places. Picture the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County and you'll be close.

The region's four main valleys stretch perpendicular to the Pacific Ocean, giving each a marine climate. The main wine-producing area in Baja California is the Guadalupe Valley (Valle de Guadalupe), and most of Baja's wineries are located within this valley about a two-hour drive from the U.S./Mexico border at Tijuana.

The Guadalupe Valley lies just northeast of Ensenada. It stretches about 15 miles northeast to southwest, opening near the ocean. The valley can be very warm, but sea breezes and clouds cool it in the afternoon, and there's a large diurnal temperature swing. Its average altitude is about 1,000 ft. above sea level.

The San Antonio de las Minas Valley is part of the Guadalupe Valley, lying at its cool southwest entrance. The Valle de Calafia is in the northeast of the Guadalupe Valley and the Valle de las Palmas lies north.

The warm Valle de Tecate is north of Valle de la Palmas, and about 25 miles inland from the Pacific Coast along the U.S./ Mexico border.

Baja California: better quality, bigger market
Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn is a traditional Mexican-owned winery.
Two significant valleys south of Ensenada also contain vineyards. Santo Tomás Valley is approximately 25 miles from Ensenada, about 10 miles from the ocean with an average altitude of about 750 feet above sea level. San Vicente Valley is 50 miles south of Ensenada at 350 ft.

Guadalupe and the other valleys near Ensenada contain vast areas of winegrapes, mostly the same varieties popular farther north. Growers have planted many familiar varieties, plus Tempranillo, which does well, and Chenin Blanc, one of the most popular varieties. Many are new--or recently replanted--using modern grapegrowing techniques and improved rootstocks and cultivars.

Water is an issue, and water in the Guadalupe Valley contains a high level of salt. The most prestigious winery, Monte Xanic, has experimented with various rootstocks and own-rooted vines, but discovered that Merlot doesn't like to be planted on rootstocks under these conditions, and Sémillon and Viognier do poorly. "Some varieties absorb more salt than others," says Monte Xanic winemaker Hans Backhoff, noting that some Syrahs from Guadalupe taste a little salty. He finds rootstocks SO4 and Freedom do better than others under the conditions.

Nevertheless, there are many excellent grapes grown in the valley. Chardonnay, always a versatile grape, does well, and winemaker Backhoff notes its unusual peach and guava flavors. Petite Verdot does especially well, too.

Baja California: better quality, bigger market
Monte Xanic lost half of its first Chardonnay crop to birds, and now uses netting to deter them.
Birds can be a big problem, and some growers have to net all or part of their vines. Monte Xanic lost half of its first Chardonnay crop, but now Backhoff says he knows where to place the nets--so the birds fly to other vineyards.

Baja California Wineries

Baja's oldest existing winery, Bodegas de Santa Tomás, was founded in 1791, and began true commercial production in 1888. Others followed, including Russians fleeing religious persecution who planted vines at their colony in the Guadalupe Valley in 1906.

In 1948, the Mexican government outlawed imports of luxury goods including alcoholic beverages, encouraging Mexican and foreign investors to plant grapes and make wine, leading Pedro Domecq to establish a winery and distillery in Baja California.

Santo Tomás was once known primarily as a diversion for tourists visiting the pleasant seaside city of Ensenada, but the winery has dramatically upgraded its wines, most recently under Laura Zamora, Mexico's only female winemaker.

In 1972, Baja California's first modern commercial winery was founded in Guadalupe Valley. Originally called Vides del Guadalupe, Casa Domecq is the second largest wine producer in Mexico. It has about half the 6,500 acres of vineyards in Guadalupe Valley, but is far better known for its brandy than wine.

In 1974, Vinicola L.A. Cetto was founded in the same valley across from Casa Domecq. L.A. Cetto is the largest commercial winery in Mexico, and owns 3,000 acres.

These three historic wineries remain the largest in Baja California, though Domecq has been temporarily closed due to contract issues. More recently, Baja has attracted new blood--some wealthy Mexican businesspeople as well as modest entrepreneurs. In many ways, it recalls the '60s and '70s of Napa Valley, when many new wineries were formed, some to grow into industry leaders while others remained simple family ventures.

Some of the commercial wineries that followed include Vinos Bibayoff (early 1970s), Casa Valmar (1983), San Antonio (1986), Mogor-Badan (1987), Monte Xanic (1988), Chateau Camou (1991), Vina de Liceaga (1993), Casa de Piedra (1997), Adobe Guadalupe (2001), Rincon de Guadalupe (2001) and Vinisterra (2002). There are now about 20 commercial wineries in the valley.

Not surprisingly, the quality of wines varies exceptionally, from those comparable to some of the best of Napa and Sonoma to mediocre products of untrained home winemakers. At the same time, the large wineries have significantly upgraded their products, and now make excellent wines as well as their traditional, more rustic offerings.

The star of Baja California wines is Monte Xanic, a boutique owned by Mexican families including that of Mark Hojel, a former investor and board member of Chalone Wine Group, and Ensenada-born winemaker Hans Backhoff. It boasts 150 acres of vines, including most popular Bordeaux and Rhône varieties as well as some Spanish, Italian and Chardonnay grapes.

Monte Xanic is a modern, gravity-fed winery with a large, 40-ft. tall partly underground storage area that was blasted out of the hillside with 2 tons of dynamite. It makes 45,000 cases per year.

Xanic uses three different techniques for producing red wines, including rotating fermenters for extensive extraction of polyphenols. Unfortunately, this process tends to reduce the wines, and the winery uses deselage to help correct this.

It also punches down with an automated plunger, which extracts phenolics well. In some cases, winemaker Backhoff uses pumpovers. "Some years, one technique works better than in others," he says. "We're doing a lot of research." He coferments Grenache with Syrah for better color extraction, for example.

All of Xanic's tanks are under temperature control, and the winery ferments the whites at a very low temperature. All are fermented in stainless steel except the Chardonnay, which ferments in barrels in a chilled room.

The winery has extensive monitoring and control systems, and Backhoff can monitor and adjust conditions from the Internet.

Near Monte Xanic is impressive Chateau Camou, whose winemaker is Bordeaux-trained inveterate experimenter Victor Manuel Torres. The wines tasted suggest some tried and true methods are best, however.

Among the outstanding wines from Guadalupe Valley are those made by Hugo D'Acosta. The former winemaker from Santos Tomás, D'Acosta now owns Casa de Piedra with his brother, wife and sister-in-law, and makes wines for other wineries.

Baja California: better quality, bigger market
Christoph Gaertner
Another impressive new winery is Vinisterra, where the winemaker is Swiss-born Christoph Gaertner. Vinisterra makes serious wines, but it also produces a delightful rosé from the fruity Mission grape, suggesting that grape could have a place in winemaking among casual wine tourists who visit the valley.

You have to work to find most of Baja's wineries, but Viña de Liceaga sits on the main road beckoning visitors near the start of the valley. It seems certain that other wineries will follow this approach, for the Guadalupe Valley is close to the popular tourist destination of Ensenada and only a few hours from the U.S. border. Liceaga, which also has a rare grappa still, specializes in Merlot and hopes to build a 15-room inn alongside its winery and tasting room.

The area already has two outstanding inns including the traditional Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn owned by American Don Miller and his Dutch wife, Tru. This inn also boasts a fine winery, the only one in the valley owned by an American. New Brisas del Valle is a small luxury inn owned by a British couple from the Hollywood film business.

Surprisingly, Guadalupe also has a true gourmet restaurant, Laja, one that would rank with the best in Napa Valley. Not surprisingly, local winery owners often entertain visitors there.

There are few vendors of winery equipment and supplies in Mexico, and almost all equipment is imported either from California (sometimes informally) or Europe. At Vinisterra, I noted a basket press fabricated from stainless steel by a local craftsman, and also a Mexican-made crusher. One of North America's largest glassmakers, Vitro, is in Monterrey on Mexico's mainland, however.

There are many other small wineries in Baja California, many quite new and some making excellent wines. Only time will prove their potential.

Baja California: better quality, bigger market
Inventive local craftspeople created this stainless steel basket press for Vinisterra.
The Future Of Baja California Wine

The fundamental problems faced by Baja California (and all Mexican) wineries, are two: First, there's little tradition of wine drinking in the country, except among the Europeanized upper and upper-middle classes. Second, Mexicans still look to Europe, and increasingly to Chile and Argentina, when they want wine. Baja California producers must build a reputation for their wines among Mexican nationals, just as California needed to persuade New Yorkers that its wines could compete with European imports. Time and increasing quality will help.

To expand their markets, many Mexican vintners hope to export their wines, particularly to the U.S., with its large population of Mexican descent. In truth, there's little reason to expect that strategy to succeed. Aside from cultural ties, the Mexican foods most popular in the U.S. aren't particularly compatible with wine, and U.S. (and Australian and Chilean) wines are better values and often better quality.

The Mexican wineries need to persuade their own large population of 100 million people to drink their wines, rather than trying to get U.S. consumers to do so.

That said, the many excellent wines coming from a few Baja California wineries show what the region can do. They don't need to take a back seat to anyone--just get the word out and increase production to match.

(Sources of information: In addition to the wineries, Gilberto Salinas, an importer and wine seller, is very knowledgeable and helpful. E-mail him at gsalinas@gsalinasvinos.com or phone +52-664-971-0953. Gary Sehnert at Wines of Mexico, 619-233-VINO or mexwine@ cox.net, is also a good contact.)
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