It all started in Mexico...
Mexico is the first place in the New World that grapes were planted to make wine yet its wines have only begun to make their way to the rest of the world. In the early 1520’s, Hernando Cortés made it mandatory that citizens of “New Spain” planted grapes as they colonized, and so the story of wine in the New World began.
Today, five centuries later, the best wines in Mexico are coming out of a small region on the Northwest coast of Baja California. Here favorable climate, good soil conditions, and the right milieu have resulted in the perfect balance of natural and cultural elements for the development of excellent wines. The viticultural region of this northern coast is known broadly as “Valle de Guadalupe” (Valley of Guadalupe), but it actually encompasses several distinct valleys in the region.
The landscape is charmingly dotted with small vineyard sites farmed by over 150 small family owned wineries, most producing less than 2,000 cases of wine annually. It is, in short, a wine-lovers dream, where one finds estate after estate working with hand-picked, estate-grown fruit to make wines that express place in every bottle.
More than Valle de Guadalupe...
Without a doubt, the best known name in Mexican wine is “Valle de Guadalupe”, yet there is widespread confusion about what the name refers to. While most people use the name to describe the whole wine region of northern Baja, it is actually the proper name of just one of the 5 valleys that are under vine.
Heading south down the Pacific coast, one first arrives at Valle de Guadalupe. This is the valley closest to the US/Mexico border, it’s where the bulk of the tourism lies, and it’s consequentially the valley most widely known. Despite this, only a fraction of the vineyard sites in northern Baja are located in Valle de Guadalupe. Most of the vineyards lie further south.
Continuing south from Valle de Guadalupe, one encounters the valleys of Ojos Negros, La Grulla, Santo Tomás, and San Vicente. Each dramatically different in their own unique ways, it is thanks to this diverse landscape that the wines from the region accomplish the diversity for which they are known.
It is said that the best wines in the world come from places where place matters, and this is very much the case here. This is true from vineyard site to vineyard site within each valley, and even more so from valley to valley. For example, take a wine from a vineyard at the end of Ojos Negros and another made from the same grape but from a vineyard near the mouth of Valle de Guadalupe. The 80+ year old vines of Ojos Negros may be planted an elevation of 3,400ft in a harsh climate far from the ocean, in soils composed of granite and red clay high in iron and magnesium. The vines in Valle de Guadalupe could be planted at 900ft just two miles from the Pacific in soils of decomposed sandstone and some white clay. Though they might be made of the same grape, you will find in each of the two wines a completely different imprint of place. In the hands of a sensitive winemaker who is intent on letting place speak through his or her wines, the grapes from these two regions have almost no similarity in voice. The exploration of the full chorus of what each valley and each vineyard has to say is enthralling. This diversity forms the basis of what makes this such an interesting region.
A wonderful extension to this diversity is the fact that there are so may different grape varieties planted here and that they all do so well. Literally every major French, Spanish, and Italian grape you can think of is represented here and finds unique expression. Among a very long list, some of the most common and successful grape varieties are:
Reds - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Listan Negro, Zinfandel, and Montepulciano
Whites - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Viognier, Vermentino, and Colombard
It's not just about the climate and the soil.
While the region has climate and soil conditions in its favor, the boutique size of the wineries and sincerity of spirit of the families behind them is what makes them truly great. The passion runs deep here, so it’s clear we have only just begun to see what northern Baja is capable of. That said, as the boutique movement expands, and as small farmers stop selling their grapes to large consolidators, expect to see wines of exciting quality coming from many other regions in Mexico. This is already happening in several other Mexican states, and the quality is turning heads.
Meanwhile in northern Baja, the boutique movement is already well underway. A combination of ancient vineyard sites, (dating as far back as 1791), talented winemakers, and the development of a unique and exquisite culinary scene form the basis of a local tourism that revolves around viticulture. From this stems an orientation towards environmentally conscious land development in the local communities.
Sustainable use of limited resources and preservation of a fragile environment is forming the backbone of the region’s path forward. As the wines and wineries of Mexico have begun to win hard fought positions in the global community of wine aficionados, the world is watching to see if they will continue to go from strength to strength as they have been vintage after vintage for several decades. What is clear is that they currently have everything going for them. The stage is set and the current performers are in many cases mind-bendingly good.