Friday, October 10, 2008

Bordeaux in Baja - Chateaux Camou

How many people in their 40s dream about what they would like to do when they retire (@ 65+/-) and pull it off right on schedule? Ernesto Alvarez-Morphy did just that, promising to fulfill a life-long dream, when, in his mid-forties, he determined that upon retirement, he would own a winery. In 1986 he made his move on time. Combining forces with several Mexican businessmen, he purchased an existing vineyard in the Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe which had been planted in 1937.


The goal? Nothing less than world class wine! Anything less was not an option.


Now the hard work began. Six months later, a winery in the California mission style architecture was built overlooking the vineyards. After studying the soils and vines, the plan became to graft 60 acres and to reseed another 30 acres with the so-called “noble” French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.


The area was settled by Russian immigrants early in the 19th century, who dry farmed wheat and some still call the area “Valle de Trigo”, or Valley of Wheat. We didn’t see any wheat, but there are a lot of Russian surnames about.


Ch. Camou sits in what is called Canada del Trigo, surrounded by about 95 acres of Bordeaux style grape vines. Production is in the hands of winemaker Victor Manuel Torres Alegre, who trained at the University of Bordeaux. Michel Rolland, a Bordeaux winemaker, has been a consultant at the winery since 1995.


There are three levels of wine at Camou. Leading off at the top is the El Gran Vino Tinto, a classic Bordeaux/Meritage blend of Cab, Merlot, and Cab Franc. After fermentation, it spends about three months in used oak barrels, then into new French oak for about 15 months. The Vinas de Camou line includes a “Fume” blanc (Sauvignon Blanc) and a Chardonnay. The Flor de Guadalupe is the “value” line, and includes a Zinfandel, a Blanc de Blanc, and a “Clarete” (a Bordeaux blend). The Zin is from purchased grapes, and is blended with a tad of Cab, and a smidgen of Cab Franc. Bordeaux-heads will love these wines, with their complexity, restraint, balance, and power.


Alvarez-Morphy feels he has achieved his dream of world class wines. With gold medals from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in 2000, highest honors in “Wines of the Americas”, and “Challenge International de Vin”, Camou is hitting on all cylinders!


The history of Ch. Camou shows how small-to-medium producers are taking the wine making art in Mexico to new levels.


Federico Valentine had no idea what awaiting him when, clutching his 1874 edition of “Traite Sur Le Vin” (Treatise on Wine), he fled post war France in 1919 to seek his fortune in the New World. Arriving first in New York, he later got a job on the railroads in Mexicali, Mexico. Moving to Tijuana, he met and married the comely Guadalupe.


With her family’s help, the newlyweds bought a small ranch near Ensenada. No High Chaparral, it had no electricity, water, or paved roads. It had “honeymoon” written all over it! Undaunted, they began raising vegetables and cattle. He sold his wares from a small cart door-to-door. Behind the little ranch house, and being ever the good Frenchman, Federico planted a small vineyard, and, using his handbook as a guide, he made the good juice for his family’s use. He had a small wooden vat in which he pressed the grapes with his own feet.


Volume increased and so did the family. Federico’s sons Hector and Gontran opened a general store in Ensenada, selling all sorts of vegetables. Years later, Federico’s daughter married Fernando Martain, who happened to be the head of production at Bodegas de Santo Tomas, another up and coming winery in the Valle (we’ll have a look at Santo Tomas in a future article).


The family had been discussing the idea of creating a family winery, so they decided to “take the plunge”. Things began slowly and very low-tech. Wine was produced in an old garage with rustic, manually operated equipment. The whole family pitched in. Cavas Valmar was born, and off and, if not running, walking. The first production came in 1985 with a whopping 350 cases of a wide scope of varietals: Barbera, Muscatel, Lambrusco, and Nebbiolo, to name a few. With the profits, they began to upgrade the equipment and expand production. Today, production has hit about 2000 cases coming out of about 50 acres of vineyards.


Cavas Valmar is dedicated to pushing the envelope on winemaking in Mexico. They take pride in the fact that their wines reflect the “terroir” (the unique characteristics that the soil in which the grape vines are grown impart to the grapes) of the Valle and have minimal human intervention. In this way they avoid standardization of their production and allow Mother Nature to express herself through each vintage.


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