Thursday, December 27, 2007

Baja California a Land of Sun, Surf, Sand and ...Wine?

By Robert Whitley

Every weekend thousands of gringos pour across the Mexico-U.S. border into Baja California. Most are going for the sun, the sand and the big surf, or the local lobster with either a cold cerveza or a hand-made margarita. An increasing number, however, are making the trip for the wine.

Mexico's most important wine region is located 60 miles south of San Diego near the fishing village of Ensenada.

The Guadalupe Valley lies northeast of Ensenada, a mere 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and benefits from the maritime influence, which moderates the temperature and makes it possible to grow the classic French grape varieties used for the production of fine table wines.

Prior to the opening of the superb Monte Xanic in 1987, winemaking in the Guadalupe Valley was defined by the mass-produced wines of Pedro Domecq and L.A. Cetto. Monte Xanic's five partners, including U.C. Davis-trained winemaker Hans Backhoff, believed the Valle de Guadalupe had greater potential.

The success of Monte Xanic spawned other ambitious boutique wineries with great expectations for the region. Hugo d'Acosta, longtime winemaker at the Santo Tomas winery in Ensenada, one of the oldest wineries in Mexico, found the inspiration to open Casa de Piedra; and the outstanding Chateau Camou, which is dedicated to the production of Bordeaux-style red and white wines, for a time employed the famed French enologist Michel Rolland as a consultant.

On a recent excursion into Baja (partly for the sun and sand, partly for the lobster and cerveza, and partly for the wine) I found myself navigating the breathtaking two-lane road from Ensenada to Tecate, which is the primary route through the Guadalupe Valley. Breathtaking because the absence of highway guard rails sometimes quite literally takes your breath away.

My first stop was the tiny bodega called Vina de Liceaga, where the production and selection are miniscule. An off-dry Chenin Blanc and a reserve Merlot were promising, though the over-ripe aromas of the Merlot were not particularly to my taste.

L.A. Cetto, well run and with high standards despite its size, was a different experience. Its tasting room and picnic grounds were teeming with tourists, but despite the crowd the staff remained in good humor and extremely helpful.

Much to my surprise Cetto poured an excellent Viognier, a white wine made famous in France's Rhone Valley. A Cabernet Sauvignon, a red Bordeaux-style blend and a Rose of Cabernet were all first-rate, too. I purchased a bottle of the L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo to take home. Though impossible to find in the U.S., I did run across this wine once in a wine bar in Paris. It's probably the finest Nebbiolo I've ever tasted outside of Italy.

Domecq was directly across the highway from L.A. Cetto, but it might as well have been a world away. The tasting room was dreary, which made it a good match for the wines. I wondered as I left if Domecq made better wines than it was pouring in the tasting room, but nothing I tasted during my visit offered the least bit of encouragement.

The highlight of my tour through the valley was a stop at Monte Xanic. As luck would have it, Backhoff was cooling off in the tasting room on this scorching hot day.

Backhoff is an old acquaintance. He and I have both judged at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, and he came to San Diego a couple of years ago to judge at the San Diego International Wine Competition, where I am Director and Chief Judge.

He greeted me with a bit of a gleam in his eye, for he had a couple of special wines to share. Monte Xanic is well known for its Cabernet, its Bordeaux-style red and white blends and its Chardonnay.

On this day, Hans was on to something else.

"These are experimental wines, they are not for sale," he said.

One was a red blend of Aglianico and Nebbiolo, about 90 percent of it Aglianico. This is the most important red grape of southern Italy and produces a world class wine under the right circumstances.

"The Aglianico is doing beautifully," said Backhoff. "The cuttings came from a man locally."

The Nebbiolo Aglianico was exquisitely balanced and beautifully structured, a complex, world class red that's easily among the best wines I've ever tasted from Baja. The other wine that had Backhoff humming was a Petit Verdot, a gorgeous fruit bomb of a wine that reminded me of fresh blueberries.

"We usually blend this for color, but this was so good we had to bottle some on its own," said Hans.

I remember thinking as I left that I couldn't believe these two incredible wines were made in Mexico. Then I remembered my first visit to Monte Xanic many years ago. I went home with a bottle of Chardonnay and poured it during a blind tasting for a number of wine enthusiasts who met regularly at a local restaurant.

The Monte Xanic bested a stellar selection of French white Burgundies and California Chardonnays. As the winner was unbagged, one of the tasters, a confirmed Francophile, buried his face in his hands and cried: 'I don't believe I voted for a wine from Mexico over the Puligny-Montrachet!'

Au contraire, you better believe it, these guys are good.
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