Mexican Wines: Wake up to the Baja California

If I suggested Mexican wine for any occasion, let alone Cinco de Mayo, you’d probably reply ‘bah’.  Or laugh in my face—hah!

Go ahead and do it.  Both ways—loudly.  Shout Baja.

What’s been going on down there, less than a hundred miles from San Diego, is remarkable for a number of reasons—not the least of which is that even the most anal cork dork doesn’t know much about it.  And yet the story of winemaking in this temperate, Mediterranean-climed peninsula, which hangs off California USA like a cecal appendix, is basically a continuation of Napa/Sonoma wine history.  Vines were planted here by the same Spanish missionaries that established outposts up and down the whole North American coast as Spain attempted to secure the area against encroachment by other land-hungry Europeans.

By the way:  Epic fail, muchachos.

The first vintage came out of Baja’s Mision de Santo Tomás during the 1790’s, so with more than three hundred years of experience under their monk’s belt, it seems that the region might be overdue for a little street cred.

Ergo:

With apologies to the good Dominicans, Baja wine served well as a sacramental Sunday snort for centuries, but winemaking did not become a world-class operation until the early 1970’s when Casa Domecq was founded in GuadalupeValley.  Vinicola L.A. Cetto set up shop nearby, and today, they are the top two wine producers in Mexico, responsible for more than half of the country’s entire output.  Toss in a bevy of boutiques like Vinos Bibayoff (the only Baja winery run by decedents of the Molokans, the Russian religious group who settled in Mexican wine country back in 1905), Casa Valmar, Monte Xanic,San Antonio and Mogor-Baden and you’ve got a quick who’s who of quality viticulture south of the border.

Baja is subdivided into three distinct wine regions, the San Antoniode las Minas (which includes the Valleys of Guadalupe and Calafia), San Vincente Valley, and Santo Tomás Valley.  Key to success—such as it is—has arisen from the Baja tradition of innovation and an aggressive, often iconoclastic approach to winemaking.  Varietals like chenin blanc thrive here, as does chasselas—a Swiss grape grown hardly anywhere else in the world.  Reds range from chewy Mediterranean standards like nebiollo and garnacha to more austere cabernets, but as visionaries, the locals are not adverse to tradition-busting blends like tempranillo and cab.

Since these wines are not yet widely available, a trip to Baja may be the best way to get a wine-lover’s handle on these unusual, well-crafted offerings.  August would be the month to do it; by then, the flu will have flown, and it’s the month of the Baja California Wine Festivals (Las Fiestas de la Vendimia).  And I mean the month—winery and restaurant-sponsored celebrations run continuously from the first to the thirty-first.

Meanwhile, after three centuries, the Mexican wine industry is undergoing birthing pains as they try to convince Californians to sample their wares, just like Californians once tried to convince know-it-all New Yorkers to drink Napa—like today’s New Yorker is scrambling to convince snobbish Californians not to give Finger Lakes wines the finger.

Naturally, the whole cluster bleep could be resolved if we would all drink copious quantities of everything available and just shut up.

So, happy Cinco de Mayo and Viva Zapata!, which I believe means that I hope my shoes live forever.

TASTING NOTES:

L.A. Cetto Petite Sirah, Baja, 2006, about $8: A great wine for the money—inky and filled with blackberries, blueberries, an elusive hint of sandalwood along with pronounced minerality and balanced tannins.

Monte Xanic, Chenin Blanc/Colombard, Baja, 2010, about $10: Frankly, since the colombard content is negligible, it’s anybody’s guess why it appears on the label unless the proprietors are all from Monte Xanax.  Slightly sweet, creamy, with tropical fruit on the nose and a peachy palate with a squirt of lime.  A glugger, but a good one.

Vinas de Camou, Fumé  Blanc, Baja, about $8:  Probably not a wine for devotees of ‘grassy’ sauvignons—this one showcases the grape’s tropical tan: passion fruit, grapefruit and guava with a crisp, supportive acidity.  Fermented entirely in new french oak, the wine showcases the toasty wood behind the fruit.  It’s a bit unbalanced, but it’s also seriously inexpensive.

Casa de Piedra Arenal Ensemble, Baja, 2005, about $40:  An ‘experimental’ blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, barbera and petite sirah that highlights both the rich black fruits of cab and merlot and the spice and earthiness of barbera and PS along with eponymous mineral notes—piedra means ‘rock’ in Spanish.  Nicely oaked with aging potential, but lovely tonight with a slab of Mexican livestock.

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