Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateau Camou

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateau Camou

by Larry Walker

Had an opportunity after harvest for a walk through and tasting at Chateau Camou, one of the wineries that is taking a leading role in establishing the credentials of Baja California as a producer of premium wines.

In 1985, a group of Mexican businessmen formed a partnership with the intended goal of making fine wine in Baja's Guadalupe Valley, a coastal region a few miles from the Pacific just east and north of Ensenada. They bought an existing vineyard that had been planted in the early 1930s and built a winery on a knoll overlooking the vineyards, which are mostly located in a box canyon snaking between two steep hills.

It's a beautiful spot. There had been rains a few weeks before and the desert mountains had responded with a bloom of green. On the drive to the bodega, which is at the end of a dirt road off Mex 2, the highway that runs from Ensenada to Tecate, we spotted a curious coyote watching us from the hillside. The turnoff to the winery is at the village of Francisco Zarco, which the locals call Guadalupe.

The valley was first settled by Russian immigrants early in the last century. They dry-farmed wheat and some still refer to the area as the Valle de Trigo, or Valley of Wheat. We didn't see any wheat fields, but there are still a lot of Russian surnames around. The Camou estate is called Canada del Trigo. There are about 37.5 hectares of vines planted. The density is 6,000 vines per hectare (one hectare = 2.47 acres.) The original vines from the 1930s are still in production, yielding about 1.5 tons per acre.

New plantings were made between the old vines about 12 years ago. The new vines are planted on rootstock, rather than own roots as was the original planting. There have been no reports of phylloxera in the valley, which is well isolated from vineyards in California and has deep sandy/rocky soils. The new vines yield between 3.5 and 4.5 tons per acre, with a green harvest keeping the crop levels low. Because the old vines and new vines ripen at different times, the vineyards are picked twice.

Varieties grown are Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc. The white varieties are harvested at night. The harvest generally runs from mid-August until mid-September. Although days can be very warm, with temperatures sometimes reaching 100[degrees], the temperature drops by 40[degrees] to 50[degrees] after sundown.

In the Winery

The winery, which is designed as a gravity flow operation with the grapes entering on the top floor, is being expanded now, as part of the goal of moving toward 30,000 cases annual production. This past year production was 15,000 cases, according to Gary Sehnert, the U.S. sales manager for the winery, who is based in San Diego.

Besides additional barrel storage, there will be two floors of small stainless steel tanks--no more than 500 gallons each, Sehnert said--so wines can be made in small lots before blending.

There are three levels of wine made at Camou. The top of the line bottling is on the Chateau Camou label and is called El Gran Vino Tinto. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Merlot. Following fermentation the wine goes into used barrels (from one to three years old) for a few months, then into all new French oak barrels from Seguin Moreau. Time in barrel depends on the vintage, but in general 15 months is about average.

The Vinas de Camou label includes a Fume blanc and a Chardonnay. However, the Fume blanc will be replaced beginning with the 1998 vintage with El Gran Vino Blanco and moved to the Chateau Camou label. In keeping with the goal of the owners to make wine on the Bordeaux model, the Chardonnay is being de-emphasized.

The Flor de Guadalupe label is a successful "good value" label, offering a Clarete, a Zinfandel and a Blanc de Blanc. The Clarete is a Bordeaux blend, but receives far less time in oak than the Gran Vino Tinto. The Zinfandel, which is purchased from a grower with 25 to 30 year old vines, is blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc and receives 10 months in barrel. The Blanc de Blancs is a blend of Chenin blanc, fermented in stainless steel, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay.

Winemaker Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, was trained at the University of Bordeaux and Bordeaux winemaker Michel Rolland has been a consultant at the winery since 1995.

"The owners met Rolland at a conference in Napa and convinced him to come and take a look. I'm told he was reluctant, but when he got here he saw the potential of the Guadalupe Valley and signed on," Sehnert said. "He comes in four times a year and spends several days during the time the wines are blended."

Sehnert said Rolland is really a hands-on consultant. "We have a triage table with a moving belt, and when he was here at harvest he spent half the day at the table, showing the other workers what to look for. A lot of grapes went on the floor," Sehnert added. The triage table is from Demoisy.

Sehnert said his goal was to sell 20% of Camou's production in the U.S. "It is really going very well," he said. "We are getting into the top restaurants and have had some good reviews. Our toughest market so far is California. It's hard to break into."

Sehnert's background includes a stint in retail wine as well as in restaurants. (He has also been a stockbroker and has a degree in law. Four days after receiving his law degree, he went to work in a wine shop. Not sure whether that says more about the wine business or being a lawyer.) At any rate, he knows the ins and outs of the three-tier system and is well aware that he has to keep on top of distributors.

Camou is also aiming at the Asian market, especially Japan, and is interested in the English market.

There are still a number of problems in the national Mexican market, Sehnert said. "Just basic stuff like getting restaurants to store the wines properly can be tough," he said. He cited the case of a recently opened upscale Tijuana restaurant, La Differencia. "They spent a lot of money opening the place, it looks good, the food is good, but they were storing the wines in a shed behind the restaurant. We had to tell them we wouldn't sell to them if they didn't start storing the wine properly."

(The night before, seven of us had dinner at La Differencia. The food was superb and after sampling almost a dozen bottles of wine, including a fair share of Camou, the owners appear to have solved their storage problems.)

"It isn't always easy for Baja wineries," he added. "But the people in Baja Norte are called Cachanillas. Cachanilla is a desert plant and it has to be tough to survive. Once a year, after the rains, a single flower blooms, and it's a beautiful flower."

As we left Camou, we didn't see any Cachanilla blooming, but there was a sliver of moon rising over the mountain and a coyote barked back up the canyon beyond the vineyards.

The Wines

Assistant winemaker Jesus (Chuey) Riberra Covarrudeas led a tasting of Camou wines and a barrel sampling of the 1999 and 2000 vintages for us. He was born in the Guadalupe Valley and his parents and grandparents worked on the estate vineyards.

Riberra was trained on the job and his enthusiasm for winemaking was catching. Even at the end of a long day, he was patient with gringo-nerd wine questions. As the tasting went on, he kept pulling out new bottles to explain a point.

The barrel tasting was particularly impressive, especially the year 2000 wines. Riberra believes they will be the best wines ever mode at Camou.

The tasting of bottled wines included:

Flor de Guadalupe Blanc de Blancs, 1998. A blend of 50% Chenin blanc with the rest split between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, the wine, which sells for about $7, was refreshing and crisp, with lively fruit and a medium finish. A very good value.

Flor de Guadalupe Zinfandel, 1998. A blend of 80% Zinfandel, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cobernet franc, it's a zippy, delicious wine with juicy fruit. Terrific with spicy or chili-based dishes.

Chateau Camou Gran Vino Tinto 1997. A lovely wine, balanced and elegant with good aging potential.

Chateau Camou Gran Vino Tinto 1998. Very concentrated fruit with massive flavors. It is muted now but has great potential.

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