While agave spirits were gaining traction around the world, hopeful vintners in northwestern Mexico were quietly making wine. Good wine. Fifteen minutes in from the Pacific Ocean and 90 minutes south of the United States-Mexico border is where the grape juice can be found, in Valle de Guadalupe. It’s the land of Mediterranean style food and drink: olive trees dot the vineyard-lined landscapes and vegetables alongside fresh seafood dominate the cuisine. Many of the roads are unpaved, belying the fact that ultra-modern tasting rooms and state-of-the-art winemaking and storage facilities lie just over the next boulder-covered hill. Whatever you thought about eating and drinking in Mexico, this is surely a departure from it.
A thing to know about wine from this area is that there are no rules, literally and figuratively. There’s no longstanding, deep tradition, either, which benefits winemakers and drinkers alike in terms of creativity and experimentation. You’ll find a number of varietals here, some thriving and others being tested. Though some winemakers favor single varietals, blends, many of which you’ve never heard of, abound. Flavors and smells will be bigger and bolder than from grapes grown elsewhere — a function of the region’s long, hot summers and cool nights. All of these wineries are available to visit and offer tastings and, in many cases, cellar tours if you ask nicely and they’re not too busy. While tourism to the region has sharply increased in the last few years, and the area has become more accessible, there’s still an undiscovered quality here, and it’s worth exploring, even if just for a day trip from San Diego. Below are our selections on where to drink in Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe.
Known as “Paoloni” in the United States, this is one of Mexico’s flagship wineries. Owner and winemaker Paolo Paoloni is an Italian immigrant to Mexico and he brought three generations-worth of winemaking experience with him. Visitors can expect different tasting tiers, but we suggest springing for the premium level, which will give you access to his oaky but well-balanced Aglianico, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. One of the best views in the valley, make sure you come on a warm day and sit outside on the deck. villamontefiori.mx.
Sol y Barro
This tiny tasting room is tucked into a hillside just below Viñas de Garza (below) but shouldn’t be overlooked. Owner and designer Aime Desponds used clay to build this hidden, organic winery, which features an intimate tasting room that can only hold small groups before spilling out onto the patio. The result is a personalized tasting experience that you won’t see in more developed regions and blends you won’t find anywhere else. Facebook Page.
While construction of the tasting room near Finca Altozano (Javier Plascencia’s Valle restaurant) is still being finished, we would be remiss not to include these wines. Head to Mantou Gastropub in downtown Ensenada to try the full range of winemaker Lulu Martinez’s excellent bottles, which are a result of her many years spent in Bordeaux learning winemaking from the Lurton family of Chateau Brane Cantenac. Of special note are her whites, where her French winemaking style shines, especially within her suite of Chenin Blancs. Facebook Page.
Part of a consortium of wineries that grow grapes in Maury, France and ship them back to Mexico for winemaking and processing, Mogor Badan’s wines have an old-world refinement with new world style and intensity. Their tastings, held at the back of the beautiful and large property, are often small and personalized and generally include a cellar tour that chronicles the history of the owning family and their exploits in Europe. If matriarch Natalia Badan is on-site, you’re in luck. She’s one of the most respected women in both the Valle and in Mexican winemaking. Facebook Page.
This futuristic winery looks like a spaceship, the mark of its owner who is a mathematician-turned-vintner, but is also making some of the Valle’s most compelling blends. In particular, the Magma stands out. A blend of cariñena and garnacha, its minerality and bold flavors resemble that of valued Spanish wines from Priorat. Another hallmark of Alximia is that it’s an eco-friendly winery, meaning they minimize waste, use alternative energy sources and practice innovative water conservation techniques. alximia.com.
Torres Alegre y Familia
Winemaking in the Valle de Guadalupe has deep Bordeaux roots. Part of this is attributable to Dr. Victor Torres Alegre, who is making some of the best wines to come out of Mexico. He studied oenology in Bordeaux, bringing his knowledge and expertise to the Valle where he continues to churn out high quality French-style wines. Of particular note are his Cru Garage wines, which are Torres Alegre y Familia’s premier offerings. Facebook Page.
Mexico City transplant Fernando Perez Castro has created a mini empire in the Valle between his flagship winery, Lomita, it’s extraordinary on-site restaurant, TrasLomita, and a second winery (Finca La Carrodilla, below) based around natural wines. At Lomita, don’t be fooled by the price tags: the Tinto de la Hacienda wine is not one of the most expensive, but it is one of the best. The Pagano is a more full-bodied but high quality option too; it’s 100% grenache and perfectly exemplifies the Valle’s hallmark minerality and signature intensity. lomita.mx.
Finca La Carrodilla
Valle de Guadalupe’s first certified organic winery is the second wine-oriented project from Fernando Perez Castro of Lomita (above). In a land of heavily oaked blends, his natural wines stand out for their acidity and minerality and for the fact that they’re mostly mono-varietals. Besides the notable wine, their rooftop perch is ideal for sipping and enjoying a charcuterie plate in one of the most ideal sceneries in all of the valley. fincalacarrodilla.mx.
This small, family-run vineyard just off of the main highway boasts a variety of blends and mono-varietals, of which the Nebbiolo and an unoaked chardonnay are crowd favorites. The formal winemaking business was officially started years ago, when, former owner and winemaker Ray Magnussen made a wedding wine for his daughter, Kris, who has now taken over winemaking duties herself. The result is a down-home approach to making unfussy, quality wines at a hacienda that makes you feel at home. Don’t be fooled, though: 2016 found Lechuza on The French Laundry’s wine list — the first Mexican wine to achieve such status. vinoslechuza.com.
This winery’s tasting room, which sits under overturned boats and offers a cool oasis during scorching-hot Valle de Guadalupe days, is a talking point unto itself. Designed by renowned architect Alejandro D’Acosta, Vena Cava is the winery within founded by Phil and Eileen Gregory, who also own and operate several other business, on-site. Guests can easily visit Troika, the taco truck; Corazon de Tierra, their fine dining temple from chef Diego Hernández; or book a room at La Villa del Valle, their boutique hotel. Known as the winery that provides the house red wine for Enrique Olvera’s restaurants in Mexico and abroad, visitors should also try the bubbles (the rosé is something special) and natural wines, if available. venacavawine.com.
One of the Valle’s newest, flashiest and design forward wineries is Decantos, which sits on the western edge of the valley down a long, dirt road. Eschewing pumps, Decantos’ wine reaches its barrels strictly with the aid of gravity, limiting oxygen exposure and preserving electricity. The winery offers stunning views, a large lawn and ample seating, making it the perfect place to post up for a few hours, or even an entire day. Facebook Page.
Winemaker and owner Jorge Maciel just finished building his tasting room, which sits adjacent to his cellar and home on the top of a hill overlooking the entirety of Valle de Guadalupe. Aside from warm, friendly service and an explanation of anything you could ever want to know about his wines, this Ensenada winemaker is making killer petit sirah alongside a full suite of high quality red wines. cavamaciel.com.
Casa de Piedra
Hugo D’Acosta is one of the legendary winemakers in the Valle de Guadalupe and any discussion of Mexican wine’s history and pedigree is lacking without his name. Merits should include his lauded wine labels as well as La Escuelita, the school he founded to teach winemaking to small groups of students from both local environs and beyond. In addition to his flagship label, Casa de Piedra, he recently debuted a line of bubbles called Espuma de Piedra, which is best experienced alongside some native Baja shellfish at eatery Conchas de Piedra, located next to the winery. vinoscasadepiedra.com.
Tru Miller sits at the helm of this winery, restaurant, horse stable and hacienda-style hotel, all rolled into one. Miller has enlisted winemaker Daniel Lonnberg to carry on the winery’s tradition of making wines in the style of Hugo D’Acosta, all of which are named after angels. Guests can ask for private, winemaker-led tastings with accompanying food from both the hotel’s stellar kitchen and its proprietary food truck. Pro Tip: The duck tacos are unmissable. adobeguadalupe.com.
One of the OG’s of the Valle de Guadalupe, Monte Xanic boasts one of the most modern and expansive tasting rooms in the region. Partially credited with starting the modern day Mexican winemaking push, Hans Backoff and his team are continuing to lead the charge with high quality wines at a range of prices. Our recommendation is to commandeer their sauvignon blanc and enjoy the sprawling views of the greater valley. Facebook Page.
Under the steady hand of Victor Segura, Las Nubes has been making wine since 2008, opening their expansive tasting room several years later in 2012. Offering a bird’s eye view of the Valle, this winery boasts a large terrace, crowd-pleasing cheese plates and experimental varietals. Las Nubes is particularly known for its appropriately-named Nimbus blend, which is a mix of Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Facebook Page.
Alberto Rubio is the winemaker at Fluxus and is making some of the valley’s best and most thoughtful wines. He spent a year in the Languedoc-Rousillon valley at Hugo D’Acosta’s La Borde Veille, which heavily informs his winemaking style. A small winery, be on the lookout for two bottles, in particular: palomino, a little used varietal that shines in the Valle de Guadalupe’s climate, and the GSM, a Rhone-style wine whose boldness is only enhanced by its minerality.
Viñas de Garza
On the top of a hill on the southern end of the Valle sits Viñas de Garza, whose main draw, apart from their premium wines, is their outdoor tasting bar, where the lovely Ana and Amado Garza serve visitors before directing them to any number of seats and tables on their terrace. Overlooking not only their own vines but the southern and eastern portions of the valley, guests are free to taste, purchase by the glass or buy an entire bottle to share. Opened in 2003, it’s one of the older tasting rooms in the Valle and specializes in red blends. vinosdegarza.com.
While the wine shines in Valle, Baja California is also known for its killer craft beer scene, which is growing exponentially year after year. In the port city of Ensenada, specifically, just outside Valle de Guadalupe, there are a few watering holes you need to know about if you’re in the mood for hops versus grapes.
Agua Mala — Agua Mala’s tasting room (which also serves food) sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in El Sauzal, just north of Ensenada proper. Drinkers particularly love their double American IPA and oatmeal stout. aguamala.com.mx.
Wendlandt — With a full range of craft beers, a skilled kitchen and national distribution all over Mexico, Wendlandt is one of Baja’s premier breweries and gastropubs with a location in downtown Ensenada. wendlandt.com.mx.
Hussong’s Cantina — Baja California’s oldest cantina is still rocking with the margarita it claimed to have invented, mariachi, festive crowds and sawdusted floors. A mainstay in Baja California and bar of legend, Hussong’s is not to be missed. cantinahussongs.com.
Doble C — Twin brothers Alan and Victor Celis are the behind Doble C, a brewery that just opened its oceanfront tasting room and terrace just outside Ensenada. Facebook Page.
Header Photo Credit: Vena Cava by Yoshihiro Koitani.