When one hear the words “wine country,” the following things may come to mind: linen outfits, snobby oenophiles, the word “palate.” But visiting a wine region doesn’t have to play out like a scene from Sideways. Beyond the overplayed Napa Valley, or even Temecula Valley, is a hidden, unpretentious gem – a place where you’ll find family-owned and artisanal wineries, inventive farm-to-table restaurants and architecturally stylish boutique hotels in an area developed enough to have tourist-friendly amenities, yet, underdeveloped enough to guarantee a raw and authentic experience.
Welcome to El Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country.
What makes the area special is that besides its traditional Mexican vibe, there’s also a mish mash of international influences across the region, as foreigners have come to the valley and established their own wineries and restaurants. In fact, the region’s viticulture history can be traced back to Spanish missionaries in the 1800s, and a century later to Russian immigrants.
The vino and the scenery alone are worth the drive down “la ruta del vino.” You’ll have glimpses of rolling vineyards surrounded by mountains and olive groves, which, coupled with Baja’s arid climate, have led many to compare it to Tuscany – but I say it has its own specialness.
El Valle is a place you need to experience with all of your senses, but as someone once correctly put it, “these aren’t places you stumble upon, but places you hear about,” and getting to them can be an experience in itself. So I drove down for a weekend to check it out (it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it…). Without further ado, our guide to Mexico’s wine Mecca.
HOW TO GET THERE:
You will get lost at some point. But that’s part of the fun.
It’s a roughly 1.5 hour drive from the San Diego-Tijuana international border. Once crossing, follow signs to Playas de Tijuana/Rosarito which will take you to the “La escenica” toll road. There are four tolls total in each direction, but you’ll be able to travel on a paved, ample highway that meanders along the Pacific coast with plenty of sea breeze and scenic views.
Lookout for the “Ruta del vino” sign once you are in Ensenada, and make a sharp left once exiting.
At some point, the path becomes dirt; be prepared for some bumpy terrain and dust clouds as you hunt down the wineries which are like hidden enclaves.
WHERE TO BECOME A WINE CONNOISSEUR:
At El Valle you can taste everything from a standard Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to high-end grape blends that represent Mexico’s up-and-coming experimental wine market. But don’t expect to be greeted with a wine flight at each winery you visit. El Valle hasn’t become commercialized – yet – to the point of offering walk-in wine tastings to the public on an ongoing basis.
Call ahead, as wine tastings at certain wineries are by reservation only, and arrive early; many places close their doors in the late afternoon.
Climb the ladder up to their tasting room as you breathe in the scent of their French oak barrels. Buy a bottle to-go to drink by their swan and geese inhabited lagoon. Appointments recommended.
One of the newer wineries, it offers walk-in wine tastings at an outdoor porch area perched atop a hill dotted with Bougainvilleas.
A married couple hailing from Laguna Beach and the Netherlands built their elegant bed-and-breakfast hacienda designed by a Persian architect, where they breed Azteca horses and produce wine named after archangels. This sounds like a parody I just made up, but it’s a real place I promise. Wine tastings by appointment only.
Sample “Estate wine” at the former house of a Bordeaux-educated enologist from Mexico City who is also a wine consultant to many of the region’s wineries. Wine tasting by appointment only.
WHERE TO EAT:
There are a handful of gastronomic gems that have sprung up across the valley that pride themselves on using local produce and are owned by some of Baja’s celebrity chefs like Javier Plascencia; one of the founding chefs of “Baja-med,” a fusion of Mediterranean and Baja cuisine that is popular in the region.
His latest creation is La Finca Altozano which describes itself as an “asador campestre.” Although the food is great, eating al aire libre in the middle of a vineyard is reason enough to go.
Reservations are recommended.
WHERE TO LIVE IT UP:
With the arrival of the harvest season this August (called “La vendimia”), the valley will celebrate by hosting their “Fiestas de la vendimia,” a yearly tradition now.
Paella festivals, outdoor concerts, and soirees abound. Some events are by invitation only, but there are plenty of events you can purchase tickets to.