“Baja California reminds me a little of California some years ago,” says Wilton Nava, wine director for Mexico City restaurant Quintonil. “That push for quality, experimentation, and understanding of the region, and making major achievements by leaps and bounds.”
A 90-minute drive from the U.S. border, Mexico’s premier wine region lies in the state of Baja California. It produces approximately 75% of all of Mexico’s wine, and almost all of what’s available in the U.S. Baja has a hot, dry Mediterranean climate, with similarities to Napa Valley and the Southern Rhône, but with a profound maritime influence; most of its vineyards are within 15 miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The bulk of Baja wine country runs from Valle de Guadalupe, about 20 miles northeast of Ensenada, to Valle de San Vicente, about 55 miles south. It’s more than twice the length of Napa Valley, and roughly equivalent to the stretch of Burgundy from the Côte de Nuits to the Mâconnais.
“In many ways, the challenge facing Valle de Guadalupe now isn’t how to grow, but how to preserve itself.” —Fernando Pérez-Castro, proprietor, Lomita and Finca La Carrodilla
The vast majority of Baja wineries are in Valle de Guadalupe, which has become one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations among both Mexicans and U.S. visitors.
Valle de Guadalupe is often used as a catch-all label for Baja wines. However, most Valle de Guadalupe wineries source from several subregions, each with varied soils and microclimates. Only about 5,000 of the 11,000-plus planted acres in the region are in Valle de Guadalupe proper.
These subregions are collectively known as the Valleys of Ensenada.
The subregions of Baja
Valle de Guadalupe: The soils of Valle de Guadalupe range from sand and sandy loam near the valley’s dry riverbed, to granite in the foothills and clay as you climb the hillsides.
Moving toward Ensenada and the ocean, the area of San Antonio de las Minas can be considered part of the larger Valle de Guadalupe region. It has a cooler climate than most of upper Valle de Guadalupe, with morning fog and constant breezes, and soils of mostly decomposed granite.
Valle de Ojos Negros: This is the valley furthest from the ocean, but also at the highest altitude, with vineyards planted at more than 2,600 feet above sea level. Ojos Negros is named for two aquifers that look like black eyes from a distance and provide the valley with abundant pure water. This makes it one of the most desirable grape-growing subregions in the often water-challenged Baja.
With little available land left in Valle de Guadalupe, many people have earmarked Ojos Negros as Baja’s next great wine region.
Valle de Santo Tomás: The historic Santo Tomás winery and its vineyards are located in this region. Its soils are mostly alluvial sand and gravel.
Valle de La Grulla: La Grulla, meaning “the crane” in Spanish, also goes by its municipality name, Ejido Uruapán. It has sand and clay soils, and it’s one of the coolest parts of the region, thanks to marine winds that flow through a mountain gorge to the west. Vinícola Aldo Cesar Palafox is one of the only wineries in La Grulla.
Valle de San Vicente: Just nine miles from the ocean, San Vicente has mostly red clay-based soil and alluvial sand. Winemaking dates to the San Vicente Mission, established in 1780.
Puerta Norte: Not technically one of the valleys of Ensenada, the area around the border town of Tecate is best known to natural wine buffs as the home of Bichi. Most vineyards are planted at more than 2,000 feet above sea level, in sandy loam and granite soils.
The grapes of Baja
Mexico’s lack of established signature grapes is both an asset and a challenge. Most of the world’s great wine grapes are planted in Mexico, as well as outliers like Ruby Cabernet, Palomino and Trousseau Gris. The native Mission and Rosa del Perú grapes are mutations of the Listán Prieto brought to Mexico from Europe in the 16th century.
Because there are no labeling laws, terminology can vary. There is Grenache and Garnacha, Carignan and Cariñena, rosé and rosado. You’ll also find uncommon blends and styles, like a 50–50 blend of Nebbiolo and Tempranillo from Corona del Valle, F. Rubio’s Mezcla Italiana blend of Montepulciano, Mourvèdre and Sangiovese or Bruma’s Ocho Blanc de Noirs, a still white wine made from Carignan.
Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted white wine grape, though largely because of L.A. Cetto’s extensive holdings. The producer sells hundreds of thousands of cases of Chenin as a varietal wine, as well as in blends with Colombard. Other common white wine grapes include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red wine grape, but it has competition in Tempranillo, Merlot and Grenache, which has become increasingly popular in rosés. Malbec, Syrah and Sangiovese are emerging categories. They offer unique profiles that show freshness and lift along with their brooding sides.
A tale of two Nebbiolos
Baja produces a lot of wine labeled as Nebbiolo. However, most are inky wines, with jammy black-fruit characteristics that show no resemblance to Italian versions. It’s enough to give pause as to what Baja’s terroir is doing to the wine.
Some examples of the grapes used for these wines have been genetically tested and come back as Lambrusca di Alessandria, another Piedmontese grape that bears no relation to Nebbiolo, or even Lambrusco. But few producers are interested in testing their grapes, dare they learn the truth and risk losing the commercial cachet of calling their wines Nebbiolo.
A long-told story says that the Nebbiolo planted in Baja are actually several varieties from Piedmont that arrived without identification tags in the 1940s. To complicate matters, there is certified Nebbiolo planted in Baja as well, which displays the grape’s textbook color, aromas and tannins.
“I wish Mexican Nebbiolo would be genetically identified,” says Verónica Santiago, winemaker for Mina Penélope. She crafts certified Nebbiolo into a varietal wine with considerable Piedmontese charm. “Not to discredit it, but to identify a flagship variety that can represent the region, since it’s a powerful grape with a lot of character that a lot of us enjoy.”
Where to find Baja wine
There are three U.S. importers focused exclusively on premium Mexican wine that ship direct to consumer.
Patrick Neri Selections (ships to all states except AR, KY, MI, MS, UT)
Bodegas Cieli, Bodegas F. Rubio, Cava Maciel, Corona del Valle, Finca La Carrodilla, Hacienda Guadalupe, La Lomita, L.A. Cetto, Las Nubes, Lechuza, Mina Penélope, Monte Xanic, Santos Brujos, Viña de Frannes, Solar Fortún, Santo Tomás, Symmetría, Vinisterra, Vinos Paoloni, Vinos Plata
Three bottles to try
Mina Penélope Julio 14 (Valle de Guadalupe): A Syrah-dominant GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) blend from organic estate-grown grapes whose vineyard treatments often include citrus oils, garlic, chile and seaweed. This winery’s entire production is under 1000 cases, with a goal of zero waste in the farming and winemaking.
Santos Brujos Chardonnay (Valle de Guadalupe): One of the first Mexican wineries certified both organic and biodynamic, specializing exclusively in Chardonnay and Tempranillo.
Symmetría Luminaria Sparkling (Valle de Guadalupe): Winemaker Mauricio Soler worked at Roederer for years, and this traditional-method sparkling Grenache might be Mexico’s best bubbles. Like vintage Champagne, it’s aged on the lees for minimum three years, and only made in certain years.
La Competencia Imports (ships to CA, FL, ID, NM, NV, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico)
Adobe Guadalupe, Bodegas Henri Lurton, Bruma, Casa Magoni, Duoma, Hacienda Guadalupe, La Trinidad, Madera 5, Palafox, Roganto, Santos Brujos, Solar Fortún, Symmetría, Totol, Viñas de la Erre, Vinícola Regional de Ensenada
Three bottles to try
Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel (Valle de Guadalupe): Chilean winemaker Daniel Lonnberg worked for Concha Y Toro and Viñas San Pedro before moving to Ensenada in 2005. The Kerubiel—part of his “Arcangels” series of Old World-inspired blends—is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, and Mourvèdre.
Bruma Ocho Blanc de Noirs (Valle de Guadalupe): Winemaker Lourdes “Lulú” Martínez Ojeda worked in Bordeaux at Château Brane-Cantenac for ten years, before returning to her native Ensenada to start Bodegas Henri Lurton. Now at Bruma, she makes both classic and experimental wines, like this still white from 100% Carignan Noir.
Solar Fortún La Viña En Rosa Rosado (Valle de Guadalupe): Solar Fortún enjoys a unique microclimate at the northern edge of Valle de Guadalupe against steep valley walls. Their only rosé is this rich Bandol-style wine from 100% Mourvèdre. Fun fact: Winemaker Santiago López Viana was a six-time Mexican national champion gymnast before studying winemaking at UC Davis.
LMA Wines (ships to CA)
Alximia, Bodegas F. Rubio, Bodegas Marilena, Casta de Vinos, Cavas Valmar, Cava Maciel, Concierto Enológico, Corona del Valle, Durand Viticultura, Emeve, El Cielo, Finca La Carrodilla, Fratelli Pasini, Las Nubes, Lechuza, Legado Sais, Mina Penélope, Monte Xanic, MD Vinos, Montano Benson, Montefiori, Nativo, Primate, Relieve, Salto de Fe, Santo Tomás, Trasiego, Valle de Tintos, Valle Seco, Vena Cava, Vinícola Fraternidad, Vinisterra, Vino de la Reina, Vinos Nivel
Three bottles to try
Bodegas F. Rubio Sangiovese (Valle de Guadalupe): Sangiovese does exceptionally well in Valle de Guadalupe, which is no surprise given the Mediterranean climate and long growing season. This family-run winery’s version shows classic flavors of red fruits and dried herbs.
Cava Maciel Alba (Valle de Guadalupe): Charismatic winemaker Jorge Maciel—who has been called “the George Clooney of Valle de Guadalupe”—makes age-worthy reds that spend considerable time in bottle before release. This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon’s profile boasts a typicity equivalent to the best examples of New World Cab.
La Carrodilla Canto de Luna (Valle de Guadalupe): Finca La Carrodilla is a working farm whose vineyards are certified both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Gustavo Gonzales made a number of Mondavi’s premium red wines as well as the Super Tuscan “Sassicaia” before coming to the Valle. This is a smoky, spicy blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.