Thursday, December 27, 2007

There's hot new wine country in Baja California

by Barbara Hansen

ENSENADA, Mexico - This is not the place where you expect to find wine country. You're racing along Highway 3, after all, the road that links Tecate to the coast. And when was the last time you connected Ensenada and wine, anyway? Tecate? Isn't that beer country?

But here you are, on a spectacular drive through hilly vistas studded with huge boulders. You're passing ranches and stands that sell locally produced honey and dates, fava beans, chorizo, cheese and olive oil. There's even an ostrich farm - the word on the sign is avestruz.

And then you're at Kilometer 86.5, at the ranch called El Mogor, where winemaker Antonio Badan lives.

Badan is among a small group of serious vintners transforming the Valle de Guadalupe, or Guadalupe Valley. Not so long ago, this was a sleepy agricultural area. There were some wines, but none of them memorable. Now, small-scale winemakers from Mexico, Europe and Chile have moved in, improved the vineyards and begun to compete with the world's best. They have the right climate: hot summer days tempered by ocean breezes and cool nights. And the vineyards are filled with almost every grape on the planet: Cabernet, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Syrah - all, and more, are being grown here.

And slowly, the world is beginning to discover the wines.

At El Mogor, Badan lives in a charming old ranch house with a beautiful kitchen, a wood beamed ceiling and old Mexican tile. Here you might find Badan himself, pouring wines as he did for me on the wooden kitchen counter beside the windows that look out on the grounds. The ranch's 2,000 acres include a farm that produces vegetables and greens for restaurants from Ensenada to Mexico City. Chickens wander freely. Some of the eggs turn up at breakfast in the nearby inn, Adobe Guadalupe.

His winery, Mogor-Badan, produced just 300 cases last year. Badan handles every aspect of the winemaking himself, from crushing the grapes to pasting on the labels, which he designed using type from an old print shop in Paris.

"I think the point of the wine is that is it is absolutely personal," he says.

The Mogor-Badan red blends Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, most of it from a vineyard planted 50 years ago by Badan's father. The 2000 red was so delicious, I dreamed about it until I finally drove back to the winery to buy a bottle.

The white is 100 percent Chasselas, probably the only Chasselas on the continent, Badan says. His family originated in Switzerland, where this grape, known as Fendant, is the predominant white wine grape.

"It is the authentic wine for making cheese fondue and to drink with it," says Badan. "It's light. It's dry. It goes absolutely divinely with the local oysters and mussels." An oceanographer and self-taught winemaker, Badan found the vines in a neglected vineyard planted decades ago.

In fact, wine grapes were planted in the region as early as the 17th century. But it wasn't until the 1980s that winemaking began to come into its own. In the 1980s and '90s, Hugo D'Acosta of Bodegas de Santo Toms winery and Hans Backhoff of Monte Xanic winery became stars as they improved winemaking techniques and produced higher quality wine than the area had seen. D'Acosta now has his own winery, Casa de Piedra, makes wine for Adobe Guadalupe and teaches fledgling winemakers. The last 10 years have brought more wineries to the Guadalupe Valley and many more premium wines, some from small scale "garage" producers.

Among the newest is Macouzet, a label of Vinisterra, which was founded by Guillermo Rodrguez Macouzet, an Ensenada businessman. Don't even try to find the winery without calling first. It's a converted house in San Antonio de Las Minas, the first town as you enter wine country, well off the highway and unmarked.

The vineyards have not yet matured, so the wines are either blended from purchased wine or made from grapes grown in leased vineyards. The first releases, out last fall, are three reds and a Chardonnay. In about five years, the company will release wines from its own vineyards, made in a projected $2 million winery near the present facility.

Winemaker Christoph Gaertner, who is from Switzerland and who worked previously at Santo Toms, loves the area and won't compare its wine to that of other parts of the world. "It's like Baja California, with full, ripe grapes, full body," he says. "It's an excellent region. It's like a treasure island. I have to let people know what we have. Nobody believes Mexico can produce such wine, but we know and believe in it."

Via de Liceaga, not far beyond San Antonio de Las Minas, is easy to spot from the road because the front of the winery is painted bright yellow. In addition to barrels and fermenting tanks, it contains a brand-new Italian grappa still that will go into operation after this year's grape harvest. (Fernando Martain of Valmar is also trying his hand at grappa, but none has been released. Valmar brandy, however, may be out by the end of the year.)

Liceaga's production is 3,000 cases, primarily reds. Like other winery owners, Eduardo Liceaga-Campos is proud of awards that show Mexican wines can compete internationally. In the cool wine cellar of his home behind the winery, he pours a glass of 1999 Merlot Gran Reserva, which won a silver medal last year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

On the other side of the road is D'Acosta's Casa de Piedra (Rock House), faced in part with rocks from El Mogor. The two wines from this label are a Cabernet Sauvignon-Tempranillo blend and a Chardonnay. A second label, crata (Anarchist), allows D'Acosta more freedom. "It is very open, very experimental, a very small project - 500 cases total," he says. Crata wines include a red made only from Grenache, another that blends Grenache, Syrah and Carignane, a white made from Ugni Blanc, and a ros for which five varietals are crushed together.

Not far away, Ensenada, too, is beginning to feel like a wine town, with new wine-oriented restaurants and wine bars. S de Vino is the city's first wine bar and store, the third in a chain started by the partners of Monte Xanic. Across the Avenda Ruz, inside Plaza Hussong's, is a seafood restaurant and a bar, both called Las Conchas. The owner is Guillermo Rodrguez Macouzet of Vinisterra.

About half an hour heading inland on Highway 3 you'll find markets and a community museum in the town of Francisco Zarco. And just beyond the main street's dead end, along a dirt road, are the turnoffs to Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou and Adobe Guadalupe.

Although premium wines are becoming common, Monte Xanic has introduced a new, more affordable line called Calixa. The winery already has one of the most expensive wines in the region. This is Gran Ricardo, a Bordeaux blend bottled in magnums that sell for $180. Calixa is aged in barrels used first for the premium wines. "The barrels are free," says Hans Backhoff, and that lowers the price to about $12 a bottle.

Also new is a Syrah. The first 500 cases, released in December, sold out in a month. "Syrah has a lot of potential here," Backhoff says. "Our weather is very similar to that of the Rhone Valley."

Chateau Camou winemaker Victor M. Torres Alegre has degrees in agronomy and enology from Bordeaux, and one hears talk of Chateaux Margaux and Cheval Blanc as visitors taste his wines. An intense man, known for his passionate approach to winemaking, Torres adds: "We don't want to produce a lot of wine. We want to produce a wine that is very spectacular, like a precious gem." And Camou wines are treated like gems. The bottles stacked in a quiet room are arranged so that their ends form designs, such as a wine opener and bottle. Outside, rosebushes line the approach to the winery. They're pretty, but their real function is to guard the vines. If a disease should come into the valley, it would show up first in the roses, explains Favela.

Recent Camou releases include a Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend; El Gran Vino Blanco, which is composed of Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc; and an old vines Zinfandel that is high in alcohol - 16 percent - and sweet, "nice to go with very strong meat, such as jabal (wild boar)," says Torres. El Gran Divino, a late harvest blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, is suggested with foie gras.

Adobe Guadalupe, located well beyond Camou, is rather hard to find. Only a tiny sign marks the entrance to this elaborate Arabic-Moorish hacienda. Vineyards surround the property, and a small, cool winery with a tasting bar is at the back.

Adobe Guadalupe was founded in 1998 by retired California banker Donald Miller and his wife, Tru. The first wines, released at the end of last year, were three red blends, Gabriel, Kerubiel and Serafiel, named for archangels. The Millers have planted 11 red varietals and some Viognier, which will go into a red blend. "The area is much more conducive to red varietals than it is to whites," says Miller. "It's a very hot area, and it seems the reds do better."

Original Article

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