Get to know the original California wine country: The first wine grapes were planted in Baja California, in present-day Mexico, in 1683. They didn’t reach what’s now the state of California (then known as Alta California) until 1769, when Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest, founded Mission San Diego.
In the Vineyards
Today, just as California accounts for about 80% of U.S. wine production, Baja California produces approximately 80% of Mexican wine.
Centered around a series of valleys collectively known as Valle de Guadalupe, it has a hot Mediterranean climate, but with a mitigating maritime influence from the Pacific Ocean. Most vineyards are within 15 miles of the sea.
The best wines from here combine very ripe fruit with balancing acidity and minerality. There are no appellation rules in terms of allowed grapes or winemaking standards, so growers in the region plant a wide range of whites and reds.
While the last 10 years have seen an explosion of experimental plantings, many of the vines are more than 50 years old.
“When you’re driving off to another exquisite meal or tasting, pay attention to the gnarled bush vines of the old dry-farmed vineyards,” says Patrick Neri, a Washington State-based importer of Baja wines.
“When you want to understand the history of the Valle, just look to the fields.”
Fun in the Sun
The closest city is Ensenada, a coastal paradise that boasts lively swimming beaches and surf breaks, and all the fish tacos and ceviche you can eat. Many producers have their winemaking facilities here in converted warehouses, and it’s also a hub of Mexico’s craft beer scene.
Santo Tomás, the Valle’s oldest winery, has recently extended the area around their original facility into Plaza Santo Tomás, an urban park with dozens of restaurants, bars and specialty shops.
Yet, driving just a few minutes inland on Highway 3—nicknamed La Ruta Del Vino—the scene shifts to the arid boulder-strewn foothills of the Sierra de Juárez, with oversized agaves and cacti among the vineyards and olive groves. It’s as if Malibu butted up against Joshua Tree.
This remote landscape hosts an array of tourist attractions, including some of Mexico’s most acclaimed restaurants, architecturally innovative hotels and activities like hot-air ballooning, birding tours, and yoga and meditation retreats. It’s a destination for cycling enthusiasts, and several long-distance races are held annually. There’s even a zoo, Zoológico Parque del Niño Jersey, with a children’s water park.
Food is one of the biggest draws and intrinsically bound to the wine. Most of the leading restaurants are at or next to wineries, with seating outdoors or in glass-enclosed rooms that overlook vineyards.
Menus are based around just-caught seafood, organic produce, locally made cheeses and olive oil, and open-fire cooking.
Given limited infrastructure to manage the region’s explosive growth, almost all the 120-plus commercial wineries (big and small) are committed to sustainable agriculture, conserving water and limiting development. It’s a region where you can book visits at many of the best wineries directly with the proprietors.
“Around 75% of the wineries here are small family operations, where family members are giving you the tasting, and talking in depth about their passion and the path they’ve taken,” says Santiago López Viana, winemaker for his family’s winery, Solar Fortún. “When you’re the one working the land and making the wine, there’s a pride and love to share that’s different from a corporate winery where there’s one employee giving a quick tour. To me, these families represent the essence of Valle de Guadalupe.”