Baja Wine Region Takes Off

Peninsula home to more than 100 wineries, specializes in red blends

by Paul Franson
wine baja mexico monte xanic
Located in Baja California, Monte Xanic produces 55,000 cases per year in this clean, modern winery.
Baja Peninsula, Mexico—About 30 of Baja California’s 100-plus wineries recently joined together for the first time to host a group of 30 U.S. wine buyers, sommeliers and members of the media.

The three-day trip was organized by the Mexican Vintner Marketing Alliance created by two importers, Tom Bracamontes of La Competencia Imports in Napa, Calif., and Michelle Martain of La Mision Associates in San Diego, Calif. The area doesn’t yet have a formal winery organization.

Mexico’s wine capital is an hour and a half south of San Diego in the valleys around Ensenada. It produces 90% of that country’s wines. That’s not a lot of wine, however.

Baja wineries produce about 1.5 million cases of wine per year—more than 800,000 from L.A. Cetto, while Pedro Domecq makes 200,000 cases and San Tomás produces 125,000 cases. Only five wineries produce more than 20,000 cases, notes Gustavo Ortega Joaquin, owner of the impressive new winery El Cielo, which has a high-end restaurant and is building a 54-room resort.

The area has little more than 6,000 acres of vines, about the same as in California’s Carneros AVA.

A long history
The native grapes in Baja California weren’t palatable, but early conquistadors found that Spanish grape varieties grew well in many parts of the area that became Mexico. Monks planted the first vines in the town of Santa María de las Parras (Holy Mary of the Grapevines) on the mainland in 1597.

Soon, local wines started replacing Spanish imports, and in a bid to protect Spanish wineries, Charles II of Spain prohibited winemaking in Mexico (except for altar wine) in 1699. The wine tradition declined, and Mexico became a nation that produced primarily beer, tequila and other beverages.

However, some missionaries defied the order. Jesuit priest Juan Ugarte planted the first vines on the Baja California peninsula when he arrived at the Loreto mission in Baja California Sur in 1701. (The states on the 600-mile-long peninsula are Baja California in the north and Baja California Sur in the south).

Monks planted grapes in San Lorenzo near Los Cabos (at the tip of the peninsula) in 1767, and Santo Tomás Mission was founded in Santo Tomás Valley (southeast of Ensenada) by Jesuit priests in 1791.

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, winemaking grew.

In 1843, Dominican priests began growing grapes at the nearby Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte mission in what is now called Valle de Guadalupe, northeast of Ensenada. 

In the 1850s, Mexico seized many of the Catholic Church’s land holdings, and most of the small wineries tended by missionaries were abandoned.

In 1888, the former lands of the Santo Tomás Mission were sold to a private group, which established the first large commercial winery in Baja. It remains in continuous operation as Bodegas Santo Tomás.

In 1903, 100 pacifist Russian Molokans who refused to fight for the Czar moved to the Guadalupe Valley and planted grapevines for Santa Tomás among other crops.

Italian L. Angelo Cetto formed his winery in the eastern Guadalupe Valley in 1928. It grew to become the largest winery in Mexico, producing mostly standard volume wine.

As in Napa Valley, the modern era of the Baja wine business began when outsiders (some wealthy businessmen) started building wineries in more recent times.

Monte Xanic, one of the early quality pioneers, was formed in 1988 by Mexican businessmen to make wine that could compete internationally. One of the founders, Mark Hojel, was a former investor and board member of Chalone Wine Group.

Recently, some Americans have started wineries on the Baja Peninsula as well, including the Magnussen family of Lechuza Vineyard. Earlier, American businessman Don Miller and his Dutch wife, Tru, created Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn, and Brit Phil Gregory and his wine Eileen moved from Hollywood to build an inn, which has expanded into a unique winery created under fishing boat hulls and a restaurant.

Climate, soil and water
Though Guadalupe Valley is the best know wine site, other valleys nearby—Santo Tomás, San Fernando and San Vincente to the south, and Ojos Negros east of Ensenada—actually grow more grapes.

There’s no system for identifying regions like U.S. AVAs, but since most of the wineries get grapes from other valleys, there may not be much call for that.

However, they are more remote. Guadalupe Valley is just off the main highways 12 miles north of the popular destination of Ensenada, and most of the wineries and all the visitors’ amenities are there.

The valleys’ climate seems comparable to Santa Barbara’s wine country or Monterey—or even Napa Valley in some ways: farther from the water, warmer with summer highs sometimes reaching 100° F and dramatically cooler nights. Harvest generally starts in mid-July.

Guadalupe Valley has a narrow neck leading to the Pacific Ocean, and cold air sneaks through this opening. The valley is about the same size as Napa Valley, sited northeast-southwest.

Though Guadalupe itself is relatively low in altitude, the other valleys are higher, with Ojos Negros at about 2,000 feet elevation.

The varied soils include sand and loam. Some vines are self-rooted, particularly if in sand. Saline soils can impact the choice of rootstocks.

Water is a big issue here, as Baja California shares California’s arid Mediterranean climate—and drought. High mountains to the east collect rain and moisture, but most of the water comes from wells, and they are depleting the aquifers in the valleys. As a result, the areas will not be able to dramatically increase production.

Some of the water is relatively saline, and some wines show traces of that salinity.

Waves of grapes

In general, red wines are most widely made in the region, though excellent whites are also common, and rosés and sparkling wines are becoming increasingly popular.

The early missionaries planted a grape we now call Mission that has recently been identified as the red Listan Prieto grape now grown in the Spanish Canary Islands. Its white cousin, Palomino, is used primarily to make sherry, though it can make a pleasant white wine.

In the late 1800s, growers started planting Spanish varieties due to their colonial influence, and Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan) remain Popular.

Angelo Cetto and other Italian immigrants planted Italian varieties in the early part of the 20th century, and Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Vermentino, Aglianico and Barbera are common.

Zinfandel is also grown.

Italian-born Camillo Mogoni, who has almost 50 years of experience in wine in Baja, performed many of the vineyard trials of various grapes. He has written an excellent book about the history of the region’s wine.

More recently, French varieties—both from the Rhône and Bordeaux—have become popular, even Burgundian varieties like Chardonnay, which seems to succeed everywhere, and Pinot Noir, which is challenging. Pinot and Chardonnay are also grown for sparkling wines and picked under ripe.

With all these varieties, the question naturally arises, “Which are the best grapes for the area?”

As in the United States, the popularity of the wine might overrun other questions, and wines like Chenin Blanc, Syrah and Tempranillo that may excel can’t compete with more popular varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many Baja wineries do make varietal wines, but others have taken an interesting approach: They focus on blends, often unusual ones. Blends almost seem the signature wines of the region.

These blends include expected ones with Bordeaux or Rhône varieties, but also Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay or Pinot Noir and Malbec. Some jump national borders, like Spanish Tempranillo and Italian Sangiovese or Nebbiolo.

“The wines aren’t tannic. They’re a good match for Mexican food,” said Pedro Poncelis of D’Poncelis Winery.

The wineries
Baja now has more than 100 wineries, up from 20 a decade ago. Most are quite small, typically making about 1,000 cases per year.

On a recent trip, a group of journalists visited some modern, impressive—even spectacular—wineries, notably Monte Xanic (55,000 cases), El Cielo (16,000 cases, plus a restaurant and resort being built), Las Nubes (10,000 cases) and Alximia (1,000-1,500 cases).

Vena Cena, which shares ownership with La Villa de Valle inn and Corazon del Tierra restaurant, is built in the hillside and covered with old fishing boats. Finca La Carrodilla has a second-story tasting area, like many other tasting rooms that are elevated for excellent views.

The production areas were generally modern, spotless and well-equipped with many of the latest winemaking equipment. The winemakers generally had international experience, many having studied at the University of California, Davis, and other top winemaking schools.

Napan Jac Cole is winemaker at Corona del Valle, while Gustavo González has his master’s degree from Davis and was a red winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery for 15 years.

There are no local suppliers for most winery equipment, materials and vines, which typically come from California, though many originate in Europe. Lack of services such as mobile bottling means that even small wineries need bottling lines, though some wineries assist others.

Baja has evolved into a world-class (if small) wine producer. It is already a major destination for tourists, and as its amenities develop, it will attract more and more wine tourists. The area has grown dramatically in 10 years, with improved highways, boutique inns and a number of fine restaurants.

A proposed resort and retirement development that would have removed vineyards and developed Guadalupe Valley recently was squashed by the local government after protests from local wineries, growers and residents.

With Mexico charging 40% tax for wines, exports here, which avoid that tax, can be comparable in price to those sold in Mexico. The region’s biggest limitation seems to be a lack of water that will hold down production, making it increasingly move upscale.

The many blends mesh with the American craze for blends, but unfortunately, the amount of wine available for exports is limited, and the Mexican market for wine is growing rapidly—especially in big cities and resorts. Some producers can sell their entire production make in Mexico.

Still, they look to the big market so close to the north and its large Mexican and Mexican-American population as a fertile market. The first step may be getting more of them to visit.

Posted on 10.20.2016 - 07:55:00 PST
Very interesting article. I see no mention of other important wineries like Chateau Camou, a very nice jewel located at the north western edge of the valley that produces 8,000 cases of excellent wines.
Fernando Favela