by Luciana Bellini, The Telegraph, February 19, 2019
Mexico is known for producing a lot of things. Top-notch tequila? Naturally. Refreshing beer? Sure. First-rate wines? Not so much.
But that’s all set to change, with Mexico becoming one of the world’s most successful emerging wine regions. Or more specifically, one area of Mexico: Valle de Guadalupe, a valley in Baja Norte, just south of the Californian border.
The region, notable for its Mediterranean microclimate and 1,000ft elevation, has been producing Mexico’s finest wines for the last 30 years and with the recent opening of several boutique hotels and celebrated restaurants, has put itself on the map for both discerning Mexicans looking for a local tipple and Californians seeking a hipper Napa alternative. After all, the area is Southern California’s closest wine region, a short one-and-a-half hour drive from San Diego and just under four hours from Los Angeles.
While the region has been making mass produced, lower quality wines since the late 19th century, it started to focus on premium wine production around 30 years ago, when big players like Monte Xanic, the area’s first boutique winery, founded by German-Mexican oenologist Hans Backhoff, came onto the scene. Back in 1988 its wines were the first from Mexico to receive international recognition. Today, Monte Xanic is the third largest winery in Mexico and its most famous creation, the Gran Ricardo Bordeaux blend, is one of the region’s most widely celebrated. Backhoff’s son, also named Hans, is now at the helm and has transformed the winery into Valle’s slickest operation, with state of the art fermentation machines and a beautifully designed modern tasting facility, all glass and sleek concrete.
That’s not to say the rest of the area’s wineries are similarly high tech; in fact, most of them are pleasingly rough around the edges, overrun with friendly dogs and only accessible via incredibly bumpy dirt tracks. But that’s part of the charm. Take Vena Cava, founded by British husband and wife Phil and Eileen Gregory 15 years ago, which specialises in organic and natural wines. The self-proclaimed ‘hippest winery in Mexico’, it was designed by renowned Mexican architect Alejandro D’Acosta, who built it out of reclaimed fishing boats and other recycled materials, including leftover lenses from a local optician. The result is a striking space that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. The couple also owns the stylish B&B La Ville del Valle, which they modelled on a Tuscan farmhouse, and the celebrated farm-to-fork restaurant Corazón de Tierra.
In the last five years, the opening of several design hotels has given travellers another reason to visit. The most eye-catching is Encuentro Guadalupe, made up of individual glass-fronted eco-lofts that are perched on the side of a mountain and offer staggering views over the valley. Then there’s Bruma’s Casa 8, a desert-inspired B&B featuring eight sleek suites made out of reclaimed materials and designed by the same architect as Vena Cava. Bruma is also home to a winery that’s more gallery than tasting room, filled with Mexican artworks, and the area’s hottest restaurant, Fauna. Those seeking something more traditional stay at Adobe Guadalupe, the luxury inn and vineyard founded by Dutch-born Tru Miller in the late Nineties. As well as making great wines and housing 27 horses, available for afternoon rides, the estate produces its own tequila, Tía Tula, which Tru will almost certainly try to ply you with, even at breakfast.
The region is now home to over 150 wineries and all of them know how to party. The biggest celebration is reserved for the annual Fiestas de la Vendimia (the wine harvest festival), which takes places over several weeks at the end of July and the beginning of August and is when the wineries host special galas and dinners to showcase their finest wines. Then there’s the newer Valle Food & Wine Festival, which was launched by well-loved local chef Javier Plascencia and is celebrating its third year this October.
But Valle’s real charm lies in its quieter moments, when you can sit with a glass of wine and spend hours chatting to the winemakers about their latest experimental blend or hear about what’s new on the scene (and there’s always something new). Valle de Guadalupe is having a moment – don’t miss it.
How to get there
British Airways flies direct to San Diego, just across the US border. See ba.com . Those in the know drive over the sleepy border at Tecate rather than through frenetic Tijuana and stop for a lunch of grilled squid and octopus at Asao, one of Tecate’s finest restaurants.
Where to eat
Valle’s hottest restaurant is helmed by ex-Noma and Eleven Madison Park chef David Castro Hussong and is famous for its ever-changing experimental tasting menu that plays with Mexican classics.
Javier Plascencia’s trendy outdoor restaurant wouldn’t look out of place in Mykonos or Tulum and has a menu that focuses on fresh seafood delivered daily from the nearby port of Ensenada. The family also owns the smart nearby B&B, Finca La Divina.
Drew Deckman is the only chef in the area with a Michelin star and you’ll find him showcasing his talents in his outdoor kitchen, where diners eat wood-fired quail and home-grown vegetables under the stars.
In the summer, chef Giannina Gavaldon serves up her delicate dishes on wooden tables outside, but in the winter you’ll eat in the front room of her family’s farm house, surrounded by antique bric-a-brac and photos of their beloved pig, Olivia, whom the restaurant is named after.
Where to drink
Started by former actor Fernando Pérez Castro, this funky winery aims to make wine more accessible to the younger generation by creating labels featuring whimsical illustrations by local artists and serving wines on an outdoor tasting terrace with colourful murals.
One of the smartest new operations in town, El Cielo has an atmospheric underground tasting room and gives one of the best vineyard tours in the area, talking you through each of their vines as they zip around on golf carts. It also has an excellent restaurant, Latitud 32, serving up a blend of local and Yucatan-inspired cuisine.
Helmed by Guillermo Rodriquez and Swiss oenologist Christopher Gaertner, this small but well-received winery produces just 3,000 cases a year and conducts its tastings from an intimate tasting room at the base of the Miracielo Mountains.