The road northeast from Ensenada, Mexico, to the Guadalupe Valley doesn’t feel like a route to wine country. The landscape is dry and scrubby — this is a desert, after all. Then the highway crests a hill, and the valley stretches below. It bears some resemblance to populated pockets of California’s Mojave Desert — splashes of green interspersed with brown emptiness. But in the Guadalupe Valley, many of those green expanses are vineyards.
As is the case in Alta California, wine production in Baja goes back to the establishment of the missions. The oldest winery in Baja is reported to be Bodegas de Santo Tomas, started in 1888. The region has seen a boom in the past 10 years, with numerous small, artisanal wineries taking their places alongside larger, older operations. According to the secretary of tourism of Baja California, there are more than 83 wineries. As recently as 2008, there were only 25 wineries.
Northern Baja’s wine country is spread over several wine routes, but the best-known ruta de vino is through the Guadalupe Valley. The valley — which is less than an hour from Ensenada — has the most tourist infrastructure. It sees a lot of day-trippers (including cruise ship passengers), but there are also boutique accommodations and excellent restaurants. The Wine Enthusiast magazine ranked the valley as one of its top 10 wine travel destinations of 2014.
Visiting is also the best opportunity you’ll have to taste these wines: You’re not likely to see them in stores unless you’re shopping in Southern California. A good online source is La Mision Associates, a retailer and importer, at http://www.lmawines.com.
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Baja doesn’t have a signature grape. No one really is sure yet what will perform best in the hot, dry conditions. Sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc grow alongside tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and grenache. Blends are popular.
Then there’s nebbiolo, which is nothing like the nebbiolo responsible for northwestern Italy’s famous Barolo and Barbaresco. The Baja wines are much darker and lack the perfume and high acidity that you find in Italy. It’s possible that the differences are due to the growing conditions. But some vintners privately admit that it may not be the same grape. They stress, instead, that it’s “Baja nebbiolo.”
Several Baja wineries have California roots, including the mission-style Adobe Guadalupe and tiny Lechuza. Vena Cava, where the winery is dug into a hill and capped with recycled boats, is owned by British expats Phil and Eileen Gregory.
Other wineries in Guadalupe Valley with welcoming facilities include Bodegas de Santo Tomas, which makes a racy white from the historic mission grape; Monte Xanic, where the large cellar is dug into granite and Las Nubes, with its spacious patio and changing art exhibits.