Sunday, July 13, 2008

GillBilly Chronicals: Wine Viticulture in Northern Baja

Mexico is a diverse and mostly arid country with several areas appropriate for vineyards. Mexican commercial winemaking dates from the 16th century and now is producing several very good wines at competitive prices. In the past few years, the country's leading wineries have collected an impressive array of accolades, gaining a following among wine lovers excited by the prospect of finding excellent vintages in unexpected places. Visitors to Baja California’s beaches and marinas find its wine country a pleasant side trip while visiting the beautiful seaside town of Ensenada, 90 miles south of San Diego. Ensenada’s Vendimia Wine Festival in August is annually eagerly awaited and better hotels and yacht marinas partner local wines with wine tours year-round.

The vineyards are situated in coastal valleys on the western side of the long narrow Baja peninsula, facing the Pacific Ocean. The main production area is close to the American border south of San Diego. This region has become the leader in reviving the reputation of Mexican wines. 95 percent of Mexican quality wine comes from northern Baja California, centering around Ensenada. The three wine-producing sub regions, all located within 60 miles of Pacific coast, from north to south are the Valleys of Calafia and Guadalupe, San Antonio de las Minas, and the Santo Tomás Valley and San Vincente Valley. For the last thirty years new generations of ambitious vintners have been laboring to finally put Mexico on the winemaking map. Having decided that the time has come to develop a proper wine industry that competes with California and even France, they have begun to produce a number of surprisingly good table wines. These are accumulating good reviews, international awards and serious export interest.

The major winegrowing sub regions all lie close to the Pacific Ocean where they can benefit from the cooling ocean breezes and mists. Hot days and cool nights is a classic winegrowing combination throughout the world, allowing grapes to develop their sugars without a corresponding drop in acidity. The climate is classically Mediterranean, with low winter rainfall followed by a dry spring and hot summer. Pacific breezes and regular coastal fog make some of the coastal valleys less torrid than latitude would suggest, and several cooler micro-climates have a dependable humidity around 80%. Vines are supported by drip irrigation. All the wine producing valleys feature a mix of alluvial soils and decomposed granite. The Guadalupe Valley and especially its neighbor the Calafia Valley have become the most well-known appellations so far, although the term “appellation” may be a stretch, as the Mexican government seems even less interested in regulating wine than the Mexicans are in drinking it. Nonetheless, most producers do try to label their wines in accordance with U.S. and European standards to avoid difficulties in the important export market.

Conquistador-turned-governor Hernan Cortez commanded his Spanish colonial subjects to cultivate grapevines as early as 1524, but the name of Mexico has never been associated with memorable vintages. Although winemaking in the former "kingdom of New Spain", now Mexico (or the remains of it, after the American annexation of California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas in 1847), dates from the early 16th century, the altitude and climate in this country, in general, is not well suited to viticulture. Jug wines have been cheap and justifiably maligned. Yearly Mexican wine consumption has been under half a bottle per person, compared to two gallons in the United States and as much as twelve gallons in Argentina. The preferred drinks, of course, are tequila, rum and beer. Still, the country has never had trouble growing grapes to serve fresh, dry into raisins, or distill. The large brandy industry is the most important in Latin America, and Domecq's Presidente brand is one of the world's best-sellers.

The Mexican fine wine industry is still in its infancy, but results so far are promising. For wine lovers right now the challenge is twofold: identifying what these up-and-coming wineries do best, and then locating their wines. Production and export are small, and they are more likely to be found in better urban restaurants than in retail shops. Naturally, Mexican vintners are hoping this will soon change. Mexican labels are simple, giving brand, producer, and vintage. Varietal types are often indicated, but this is optional. The best wines, “reservas” or "reservas privadas" are more likely to be made with modern and traditional winemaking techniques in a dry modern style that emphasizes fruit.

While the region may not be ready to take on the best of Bordeaux, the wines of Mexico’s Baja region are coming into their own. An influx of European vintners looking for affordable vineyard property has sparked the recent growth of an area in which grapes have been cultivated for centuries. Mexican wines are well worth trying, and have begun to lure vacationers to the source.

There is no greater fan of fly fishing than the worm.
Patrick F. McManus

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