Sometime during 2016, loud whispers starting circulating around the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s boutique wine region just south of Tijuana, in Baja California:
“Have you heard about that Bordeaux winery that opened up here?”
“There’s a new winemaker…a woman. And she trained in Bordeaux!”
“The winemaker who studied in France…she’s from Ensenada!”
Mexico’s premier wine region was abuzz with the news that a prominent Bordeaux wine family had decided to put down roots and create an Ensenada-based operation. For many, it was deep validation from the outside world that the region was creating something attention-worthy. That the winemaker was a woman — something relatively rare both in Mexico and France (and, frankly, the rest of the world) — was even more notable.
Lourdes Martinez Ojeda is the buzzed-about winemaker. She works with Bodegas Henri Lurton, a winery owned by the Lurton family of Grand Cru Classé Chateau Brane-Cantenac, one of the oldest and most lauded houses in Bordeaux. An Ensenada native, she grew up with her father in the wine business and first went to France 15 years ago, initially with the idea of studying French. As an exchange student, she landed in Brittany, eventually visiting a friend studying science in Bordeaux. While there, she discovered the university also had a department of oenology.
Lulu, as her friends call her, tells me that she had always liked wine and the culture surrounding it. She decided to take the admission exam thinking that if she passed it, she would stay. For her, Bordeaux was the be-all, end-all. “I never thought of going anywhere else in France to study wine. I saw Bordeaux as the world’s wine capital, so I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” she remembers.
Eventually, Martinez graduated and sent her resume to Henri Lurton. He called back to offer her an interview and started working for Chateau Brane Cantenac as an assistant quality control manager soon thereafter. She moved through the ranks, settling into a role as quality control manager, the link between the winery manager, the vineyard manager, the general manager and on-staff technicians.
Sometime around 2014, Lurton decided he wanted to invest outside of Bordeaux to expand on his fifth-generation legacy. He had heard rumors of quality winemaking in Mexico, specifically in Martinez’ hometown of Ensenada and the surrounding Valle de Guadalupe. Martinez had noticed the shift herself after visiting throughout the years. Every summer, as she returned to Ensenada, she would taste wines, visit new wineries and tour the valley, amazed to see how quickly it was developing.
The turning point, however, was in meeting Eileen and Phil Gregory [of Vena Cava]. “I saw how in love they were with what the valley was and what they had created in Villa Del Valle. It made me envious — in a good way! I started to understand that the valley was fast becoming a patchwork of different wines, philosophies, techniques, characters, and that bubbling patchwork would only last a certain time. I didn’t want to miss it!”
Neither did Lurton, who Martinez insists had the idea to move into the Valle de Guadalupe after sniffing around in other locations. Knowing the ins and outs of operating a business in Mexico, she kept a cool head, explaining that when he told her he wanted to make a technical visit to Ensenada, she cited all of the disadvantages of investing there. Though extremely excited about the prospect, she wanted to be objective about any such investment by the Lurton team.
“Henri is a fine observer and fine analyst, and while I don’t really know precisely when he decided he wanted to invest here, I do remember that when we were at [Ensenada-based] Rancho Rincon de Guadalupe casting the Sauvignon grapes he said, ‘Alors on y va? [So, let’s go?], so that was the moment for me!”
Her excitement to be living her passion in her hometown, a dream decades ago, is palpable. “It’s amazing to be making wine in my hometown after 15 years in Bordeaux. I feel I’m a small continuation of what my ancestors started here years ago, my heart is completely in this project,” she says, noting that her family was one of the 13 founding families of Ensenada.
It hasn’t been easy, though. There are many challenges to starting and running a business anywhere, especially Mexico. The wine industry in the Valle de Guadalupe is a mix of insiders and outsiders, newcomers and stalwarts. Martinez wasn’t kidding when she said a new generation has arrived; there are over 150 wineries in the region, compared with less than half that just a handful of years ago. Though she benefits from the insider knowledge of being an Ensenada native, it also makes her somewhat of a target. Doubly so because she’s a woman.
“I didn’t consider myself a feminist before coming home. But after living 15 years in France, coming back, I have become one. There is a huge difference with gender equality here, in Mexico, and in France. It is exhausting being a working mother in Mexico! So much is expected at so many levels and no help whatsoever is given by the institutions, private or public,” she laments. She also struggles with proper recognition and respect. “Often, people — both men and women — are surprised when I say, ‘I’m the winemaker!’ They often reply condescendingly, ‘Really? You are the winemaker? Good for you!’ Or they ask to talk to the ‘patron.’ When I say I’m that person, they are completely troubled by it.”
“I don’t think this attitude is contained solely in the winemaking business, it’s general with any profession in Mexico,” she clarifies. “I haven’t had any hurdles because of my gender because I am confident of my work, my knowledge, and because I have been lucky of being raised by strong women like my mother, my role model, who has supported me unconditionally. I’m proud of my strong grandmothers that always pushed me to be independent. I’m proud of my aunts and cousins that are intelligent, hard-working women who managed to work and raise children in a society where it’s not always well seen. They have been my inspiration, along with all those Mexican women that, after a long day’s work, come back home to start a harder shift as mothers and wives.”
There were other personal and professional struggles in getting the business up and running in Ensenada, Martinez recounts. Her working day at Brane Cantenac in Bordeaux ended at 6PM every day, which meant that her work upstarting the winery in Ensenada — 6,000 miles and several time zones away — was just beginning, all while she had a young son to care for at home. Often, she worked until midnight. To her, it was worth it. As an Ensenadense, Lurton’s interest in the Valle de Guadalupe, his understanding of the region, both its challenges and potential, was Martinez’ fuel.
Today, Bodegas Henri Lurton is nearing completion of an actual winery facility in the middle of the Valle de Guadalupe, next to other well-known staples like the restaurants Finca Altozano and Laja, as well as the Magoni and Lechuza wineries. In the meantime, the winery has been making wine from their plots in the nearby Valle de San Vicente, some to rave critical reviews. The first vintage in 2015 featured four wines, three whites and a red: Chenin Centenario, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Nebbiolo.
Martinez brought the proprietary techniques learned from years on the ground in Bordeaux with her to Mexico, along with high-tech winemaking tools supplied by the Lurtons. She explains that their philosophy aims to make aromatically complex wines, with varietal typicity, natural freshness and balance. “To let the land and the fruit talk,” she claims.
She breaks down the process for me. Almost immediately, it’s clear that Lurton has some of the most forward-thinking processes throughout the winemaking world, while also remaining traditionally rooted. The whites are pressed in total absence of oxygen thanks to a press that injects nitrogen. This preserves the aromas of the fruit and makes for pure, clean whites. The white grapes are picked in the optimum moment of aromatic and physical ripeness, when a good balance of acidity and alcohol exists, thus giving more complex layered noses. “We are entirely against over ripening, for whatever technical reason it may be used by other winemakers.”
Bodegas Lurton ferments their Le Chenin in egg-shaped tanks that allow small amounts of oxygen to slowly seep into the wine giving it a rounded, fatty mouth feel similar to that which comes from barrel fermentation but lacking the oak aromas, preserving varietal character. Lurton’s reds are vinified at low temperatures to preserve aromatic richness, while all of the reservas and Gran Reservas are fermented in barrels, using a technique called ‘fermentation integrale,’ developed by Tonnellerie Baron in France. An old technique with updated engineering to make it more efficient, it is used to integrate the oak more subtly.
What’s next? Almost everything, seeing as their winery hasn’t yet been completed. The expected finish is sometime late summer-early autumn of 2017 and visits will be by appointment-only to preserve the philosophy that they are wine producers first, tourist attraction second. They also want to be able to ensure quality, personalized experiences for all of their visitors. Bodegas Henri Lurton will also be launching a line of Gran Reservas, a Boheme, a 24-month vinification integrale blend of Nebbiolo-Tempranillo, plus a natural orange wine next year. There are also plans for an on-site restaurant.
The benefit that comes from starting a business with a strong pedigree already in motion isn’t lost on Martinez. “The Lurton family has been in the winemaking business for five generations, they were born and raised in the middle of vineyards. Henri being here is, for me, giving even more legitimacy to the Valle de Guadalupe on an international scale. I think having such a storied brand and tradition behind us makes us that much richer,” Martinez recognizes. “A good friend of mine once told me, ‘you have to know the rules to know how to break them.’ I think we know the rules and we are ready to, let’s say, adapt them to tackle this new beginning for us and the Valle de Guadalupe.” As she says this, Martinez’ smile radiates confidence.