Three Recipes and Pairings from Baja California
One of the hottest destinations for American wine travelers isn’t actually in the United States. It’s south of the border in Mexico, just two hours from the San Diego airport.
As Baja California’s wine production grows, more and more travelers are discovering the region’s charms firsthand. Almost one million visitors per year venture to Valle de Guadalupe, the heart of Baja (and Mexican) wine production. There, wineries are just a short distance from one another, but each feels like a remote oasis.
The majority of area hotels are eco-friendly retreats that offer breathtaking vistas, and restaurants are primarily open-air, open-fire spots with a romantic rusticity that belies the sophistication of the food. The region’s cuisine draws from the coastline and northern Mexican tradition, but with Mediterranean and East Asian influences.
We asked three top chefs to pick a favorite Baja bottle and create a recipe to pair with it.
Wines of Baja
Valle de Guadalupe and its neighboring regions offer a dry Mediterranean climate with cool nights and a maritime influence that suits a variety of grapes. Reds that thrive here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Nebbiolo. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are the whites that take center stage.
The wines tend to be full-bodied, with ultraripe fruit and savory notes, but they can also be surprisingly crisp and elegant. A collegial winemaking scene and a “rising tide lifts all boats” attitude has helped improve quality.
Jump Straight to a Recipe
Courtesy Drew Deckman, chef/owner, Deckman’s en El Mogor, Valle de Guadalupe
Pork cheek is an underutilized and economical cut that braises very well. Order them from a butcher, as no other cut makes a perfect substitute. This recipe makes more chutney than you’ll need, but it keeps a long time in the refrigerator and there are plenty of ways to use it.
At his restaurant in the middle of Rancho El Mogor, Georgia transplant Drew Deckman takes advantage of the region’s immense culinary resources. Almost every ingredient at Deckman’s is grown on site or sourced from the immediate vicinity, down to the salt and olive oil.
- 1½ pounds pork cheeks, trimmed of excess fat
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 orange, sliced thin
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, more for garnish
- 2 medium white onions, quartered and sliced thin
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1½ pounds plum tomatoes, fine-chopped
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups Sherry vinegar
- 1 serrano chile, halved lengthwise
Heat oven to 400˚F. Place pork cheeks on large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Season with salt and pepper, and cover with orange slices, 2 bay leaves, thyme, half of onions, and half of garlic. Wrap tightly in foil, and place on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until meat breaks apart when prodded by fork, about 90 minutes.
While pork cooks, combine remaining ingredients in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until it achieves consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour. Remove chile and bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool. (This can be prepared and refrigerated up to 2 weeks in advance.)
Remove from oven, and let cool. Carefully remove meat from foil, and strain cooking liquid into saucepan. Skim fat, and simmer liquid over low heat.
Brown cheeks in sauté pan over high heat. Serve with chutney and spoon cooking liquid atop and around cheeks. Garnish with remaining thyme sprigs. Serves 4.
Adobe Guadalupe 2015 Kerubiel (Valle de Guadalupe). This Rhône-style blend combines Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Grenache. It has exuberant red fruit with complex earthy and dried-herb notes. This style pairs beautifully with pork, especially with sweet or fruity elements.
“Adobe Guadalupe is a pillar in the Baja wine community, and the entire portfolio is extremely food friendly,” says Deckman. “My personal favorite is Kerubiel. Its earthiness and bold fruit flavors go equally well with the richness of the meat and with the sweet-sour chutney.”
Born in Santiago, Chile, Lonnberg worked at several of the country’s top wineries before he moved to Baja in the early 2000s. At one point, he even worked with Hugo d’Acosta, a 30-year veteran of Baja winemaking.
Lonnberg’s Adobe Guadalupe wines are regularly among the region’s most acclaimed bottlings, as are those from his own Vin Sur project. He also works as a winemaker or consultant for other wineries.
Courtesy David Castro Hussong, chef/owner, Fauna, Valle de Guadalupe
This dish makes the most of brown butter, used both to poach the scallops and braise the charred eggplant for the purée. The menu at Fauna changes constantly, but this dish is almost always available.
David Castro Hussong
Hussong, an Ensenada native, comes from a family whose restaurant is often credited with inventing the Margarita in the 1940s. At 28 years old, he’s one of the region’s most acclaimed chefs. Fauna is the restaurant at Bruma, a stunning hotel and winery, but it is quickly becoming a destination in itself.
- 2 medium eggplants, peeled, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 12 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- 20 sea scallops, cut crosswise into ¼-inch-thick rounds
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 8 flour tortillas, for servin
In seasoned cast-iron or nonstick pan over medium-high heat, add eggplant in a single layer. Cook, in batches if necessary, until charred on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Set aside.
Wipe pan clean, and reduce heat to medium. Add 6 tablespoons butter and cook until it just starts to turn golden and smell nutty. Add eggplant, and stir well. Reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until eggplant becomes completely tender, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar and ½ teaspoon salt, and cook 2 minutes.
Transfer eggplant to blender. Purée until completely smooth. Thin with water if mixture becomes too thick to blend. Add more salt and/or vinegar, to taste. Cover blender jar to keep purée warm. Warm sauté pan over medium heat, and add remaining butter. Cook until it just starts to turn golden and smell nutty. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and scallops. Turn heat off, and stir gently until scallops are heated through. Add salt, to taste.
Mound eggplant purée in shallow serving bowl or divide among 4 individual bowls and cover with scallops. Sprinkle with 1½ teaspoons lemon zest and parsley. Serve with warm tortillas. Serves 4.
Bodegas Henri Lurton 2017 Vino Naranja (Valle de Guadalupe). This natural orange Chardonnay is macerated for a month on its skins, fermented with wild yeasts, and neither filtered nor clarified. Orange wines can be terrific with rich shellfish meals, as they have the body to stand up to heavier dishes without obscuring the seafood’s delicacy.
“This wine has both freshness and tannic structure to balance the lusciousness of the toasted butter in the scallops,” says Hussong. “It enhances the depth of the dish the way a red wine would, but at the same time, its crispness complements the scallops’ minerality.”
Lourdes Martinez “Lulu” Ojeda
Ojeda spent 15 years in Bordeaux, where she studied enology and worked a decade for owner Henri Lurton at the Grand Cru Classé Château Brane-Cantenac in Margaux. The two saw the potential of Baja California, so Ojeda returned to her hometown of Ensenada and started the winery in 2014. The elegance of her wines and a willingness to share knowledge has made her one of the region’s most admired winemakers.
Courtesy Javier Plascencia, chef/owner, Finca Altozano, Valle de Guadalupe
This modestly named octopus dish is boiled, grilled, marinated and braised, but the entire process is quite simple and can even be done in stages. Soy sauce, ponzu sauce and saké reflect the culinary contributions of Baja’s Japanese population.
Plascencia is perhaps the best-known chef in Baja California, often credited with its emergence as a culinary destination. One of his six restaurants, Finca Altozano is an asador campestre, or country grill. The open-air restaurant is set among vineyards with animals that roam the grounds. It also boasts what may be the most extensive list of Baja wines in the country.
- 3 pounds octopus tentacles, thawed
- 6 tablespoons minced garlic
- 4 bay leaves
- Salt, to taste
- 2 cups fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about 12 lemons)
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 cup ponzu sauce
- 1 cup saké
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup minced cilantro
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts, chopped
In large stockpot, combine octopus, garlic and bay leaves with enough water to cover octopus by 1 inch. Boil gently, partly covered, for 30 minutes. Add enough salt so broth tastes pleasantly salty.
Boil 20–30 minutes, or until octopus pierces easily with fork. Let cool in pot, then remove octopus and pat dry. This can be done up to 3 days in advance. If so, cover octopus and store in refrigerator.
Prepare grill on high heat, or use grill pan over high heat. Grill octopus until charred but not burnt, about 4 minutes per side. Remove from heat. Slice diagonally into 1-inch pieces.
In large bowl, combine 1¾ cups lemon juice, soy sauce and red pepper flakes. Add octopus, stir to coat and refrigerate for 1–4 hours.
When ready to serve, remove octopus from marinade. Place in large sauté pan with ponzu, saké, remaining lemon juice and 1 tablespoon butter. Cook over medium-high heat until liquid reduces by half. Remove from heat. Add remaining butter, and stir until melted. Serve garnished with cilantro and peanuts. Serves 4.
Lechuza 2017 Acero Inoxidable Chardonnay (Valle de Guadalupe). Acero inoxidable is Spanish for stainless steel, and it distinguishes this Chard from Lechuza’s oak-aged “Chardonnay Roble.” It’s a bright, fresh wine with a tropical citrus nose and a subtly creamy texture. The crispness of unoaked Chardonnay is a welcome contrast to the deep flavors of soy, peanuts, and char from the grill.
“I tried Kristin’s wine with this dish, and it was perfect,” says Plascencia. “The combination of citrus and butter in the sauce reflects those flavors in the wine.”
Shute’s parents started to plant what would become Lechuza Vineyard in 2005, not long after a dinner at the pioneering restaurant Laja jumpstarted their love affair with the region. Shute and her husband, Adam, followed in 2013, and they took the reins upon her father’s death two years ago. Shute considers herself an ambassador for both sides of the border and makes the winery available for customized private events.
- 1Roasted Pork Cheeks with Tomato Chutney
- 2Poached Scallops with Eggplant Purée
- 3Simple Grilled Octopus