Sarah Gilbert, The Guardian, February 01, 2014
Vineyards and vintners
A couple of hours from downtown San Diego, just across the Mexican border, lies the Valle de Guadalupe, a place of green valleys and boulder-covered hills. Its dry, hot summers and cooler, damper winters, combined with porous soil and cooling sea breezes, are ideal for grape growing. This northern end of the Baja California peninsula is, in fact, one of the New World's oldest wine-growing areas. Jesuit priests cultivated vines here in the 18th century, and the first commercial winery, Bodegas de Santo Tomas (santo-tomas.com), opened in 1888.
But it was visionary winemaker Hugo D'Acosta who changed everything. Brought up in Mexico City, he trained in France and came to work for Santo Tomas in the 1990s before setting up Casa de Piedra a few miles north of the port city of Ensenada. Releasing his first vintage in 1997, he focused on wines that characterised the Mexican terroir – concentrated and complex, full-bodied and aromatic, generally with a higher alcohol content than European wines.
His wines – such as Vino de Piedra, a blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon – have a cult-like status among Mexican oenophiles, and Hugo has paved the way for a new generation of independent grower-producers with an experimental outlook.
Phil Gregory arrived a decade ago. Originally from Manchester, he had a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles before he and his wife Eileen decamped to Mexico to try their hand at organic winemaking. They enlisted D'Acosta's architect brother, Alejandro, to build their Vena Cava winery from reclaimed materials, including a roof made from a wooden fishing boat. Now they produce sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon amongst other varieties, and supply Pujol, considered the best restaurant in Mexico City – and one of the best in the world.
When asked what drew them here, Eileen says: "Valle de Guadalupe is a unique blend of old and new: it's not unusual to find charros [Mexican cowboys] riding along the newly paved highway, or quaint casitas with no electricity next to luxury ranches. Here, well-travelled professionals and campesinos live together in harmony and mutual admiration. Everyone appreciates simple pleasures."
Alejandro's influence can also be seen at other new wineries in the valley – Hugo's ultra-contemporary Paralelo, for example, built in the shape of a cross on a former rubbish dump. As we survey the landscape from its roof, Alejandro tells me it's all about tapping into the surroundings: "When you're up here you connect with the sky, and when you're in the cellar you connect with the land."
Other new wineries include Finca La Carrodilla which makes biodynamic wines, family-run Viñas de Garza and small producers such as Monte Xanic . The wines do have similar qualities to those produced in Napa, yet the area remains relatively undiscovered. A new Ruta del Vino has been created by the local tourist board to help visitors tap into the wine scene. It lists more than 60 wineries in a 35-square-mile area, with regularly updated maps.
The perfect pairing for Baja wines is food from the burgeoning Baja Med culinary movement. This small region is home to two of the 10 Mexican restaurants that appear on last year's inaugural list of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants compiled by Restaurant magazine. One of these is Corazon de Tierra, headed by the innovative Diego Hernandez, who conjures up creative five-course tasting menus with delicacies such as goose barnacles and tostadas made with yellowtail fish, avocado and ginger purée. I sipped a glass of spicy tempranillo and watched as the nasturtium leaves and borage flowers that would later appear on my plate were plucked from the organic garden.
The focus on seasonal and local lends itself to culinary development, and the eclectic dishes I spotted on the region's menus included manta ray sopes (topped corn tortillas), tuna in jalapeño and sea urchin sauce, and venison tacos. On summer weekends, pop-up restaurants (or campestres) abound, headed by chefs such as Benito Molino from Manzanilla in Ensenada. The other restaurant in the top 50 is the elegant Laja just down the road. It's at the forefront of the valley's farm-to-table trend, and chef Jair Tellez creates simple but perfectly executed dishes, such as duck tortellini and swordfish in pumpkin sauce.
In response to the interest in the region's wines, smart B&Bs have begun to spring up around the valley, many attached to wineries. The Gregorys have one: La Villa del Valle is a six-room haven surrounded by vineyards, lavender fields – from which Eileen creates her Baja Botanica cosmetics range – and olive groves. The enormous sitting room is decorated with Mexican handicrafts, breakfast includes homemade granola, and guests can take t'ai chi classes, lounge by the pool or just admire the views from their terrace.
Adobe Guadalupe, further up the valley, is run by American banker-turned-winemaker Don Miller and his wife Tru. Breakfast is served at the communal kitchen table – a hearty portion of huevos rancheros (just-made tortillas topped with eggs, black beans and guacamole and salsa) will set you up for a tour of the estate on one of the beautiful Aztec horses that Tru breeds, followed by wine-tasting. Using estate-grown grapes, they produce six red blends (named after archangels), and introduced their first white last year.
The newest and most architecturally striking place to stay is adults-only Encuentro Guadalupe, up the valley again, with 20 minimalist glass and steel eco-lofts scattered over the hillside. It describes itself as an "anti-resort", having no TVs, phones or room service, just the otherworldly beauty of the landscape and two young chefs – one Mexican, one Russian – who rustle up fish tacos at the swimming pool bar and more complex dishes at the indoor restaurant, Origen. A cookery school, spa and wedding chapel are in the works but for now guests can hike by day and spend evenings stargazing around a chimenea, with a glass or two of Hugo D'Acosta wine, of course.
• Flights were provided by British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com), which flies from Heathrow to San Diego from £705 return. Accommodation was provided by Villa del Valle (+52 646 183 9249, lavilladelvalle.com, doubles from $195 B&B); Adobe Guadalupe (+52 646 155 2094, adobeguadalupe.com, doubles from $193 B&B); and Encuentro Guadalupe (+52 646 155 2775, encuentroguadalupe.com, doubles from $250 B&B). More information from discoverbajacalifornia.com and visitmexico.com
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk