Last November, Mike and I did our second road-trip from Alberta to Mexico. Along the way, we had a fantastic mini-adventure in Ensenada and the Guadalupe Valley. Marcello Di Cintio had tipped me off about a San Diego chef, Jay Porter, who blogs about the food and wine across the Mexican border in TJ and Ensenada. We were planning to stop for a couple of days in Ensenada, even though we were heading even further south, to Southern Baja. (It is a long drive.) Anyway, Jay gave me lists and lists of wineries and restaurants, only a few of which were open in mid-November -- which we discovered was off-season for many restaurants and wineries. Nevermind. What we did experience was incredible. We're already planning a return trip.
Here's an article I wrote for City Palate Calgary, for the May / June 2013 "Wine Issue". I've slightly re-edited it and have added in a bunch of my own photos.
A Mexican Wine Adventure
My husband Mike and I might have been delirious, what with over 3000-kilometres of highway driving, and two border crossings under our belt in just five days. There was also the adrenaline rush of navigating through Tijuana earlier that morning. (For the record, this infamous Mexican border city that inspires concerned looks from friends and strangers now feels safer and is definitely hipper than many parts of California.) On the highway south of Tijuana, the humidity of the Pacific air was softening the lines on our faces as we cranked up the radio and blared polka-like Norteño music from our truck’s speakers. Driving to Mexico in November in search of vitamin D, fish tacos and The Baja Wine Route, in particular, was starting to make a whole lot of sense.
I had picked up on some rumblings along the foodie grapevines that Mexican wine had been improving dramatically in the past several years. As it happened, Mexico’s largest and oldest winery region, the fertile Guadalupe Valley, was less than 20 minutes inland from the port city of Ensenada, in Northern Baja California. And the helpful visitor information agent in Ensenada was more than happy to provide us with a maps and winery and dining recommendations. We learned that the Guadalupe Valley —home to 50-some wineries and restaurants along a 24-kilometer loop —was the heart of Baja’s Ruta del Vino. Along with the wine culture, there was a farm-to-table food movement sweeping over the area thanks to a few revolutionary chefs pushing the idea of a North Baja cuisine.
Following our new, free maps, we turned off Highway 1 and drove up into rolling hills of ochre-red soil strewn with large white granite boulders among cacti along Highway 3. As we crested a hill about 15 minutes into the drive, tidy square farms of green field vegetables interspersed with silver-green olive groves sprawled out in front of us. Vineyards, somewhat less uniformly, crept up the hillsides. Had I not been driving, I would have clapped in sheer glee at the gastronomic potential beyond the windshield.
We’d aimed high for lodgings for our first two nights in Mexico. I’d seen photos of the brand new Hotel Endémico on hipster, designy Websites that gushed about its off-the-beaten-path luxury. As we approached, we saw the strangely wonderful private casitas that were cantilevered out over granite-bolder-studded hills, newly planted vineyards and the Guadalupe Valley beyond.
Before we got too cozy at Hotel Endémico, we needed sustenance. Calgarian travel and food writer Marcello Di Cintio had suggested I contact Jay Porter, San Diego chef and blogging evangelist about the North Baja’s food and wine scene. Porter told me he’d just been to the Guadalupe Valley tweaking his restaurant’s house olive oil, made by Rancho Cortés, a farmstead cheesery and olive oil producer. Porter rattled off dozens of Baja wineries he liked, plus a long list of places to eat. For his money, Porter liked Corazon de Tierra, which had also just been named by Travel + Leisure magazine, Mexico edition, as the best restaurant in the nation.
“This place is supposed to be good?,” Mike asked more than once as we followed handpainted signs down dusty backroads for two kilometres in search of Corazon de Tierra.
Good? It was great. Restorative and transcendant. I won’t recount the set five-course, because it changes daily. And with the chefs bouncing out of the kitchen between each course to run into the garden, it’s not just seasonal, but changes hourly depending on the supply of arugula, chard, carrots, tomatoes, or peppers. Let’s just say that Corazon de Tierra had me at the first bite of soy-ginger-garlic-dressed mahi-mahi ceviche garnished with fresh mint, and the first sip of Chasselas del Mogor, a minerally white. Mogor Badán, as it turns out, is the winery a few kilometres down the highway. This pioneering winery only produces only one white from 35-year old chasselas vines and one red blend from 85-year-old cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot vines. Halfway through the courses, I switched to a rich, plummy tempranillo for the seared yellowtail tuna and the grilled ribeye courses. Vena Cava was made a few hundred steps away, at the restaurant’s own winery.
We left Corazon de Tierra rejuvenated. As the sun set over the valley, we settled into our boxy casita as plotting another day of food and drink.
After a breakfast around Hotel Endémico’s pool, we drove to Mogor Badán, hoping we could charm our way into the tasting room. I was desperate to try their red, but the winery was shut tight, except for a busy market garden doing brisk business from the winery’s on-site vegetable patch. Nearby Barón Balché, a winery with a reputation for big reds was also closed. In fact, we tried a half-dozen wineries only to realize that wine-touring mid-week in November is not ideal. Most wineries in the Baja Wine Route are small. Some have no tasting room, others are open limited hours on weekends, or by appointment only. But god bless the big wineries. L.A. Cetto is one of Mexico’s largest producers, and in keeping, they have a good tour, generous hours of operation, and a well-stocked tasting room and store. With an everything-under-the-sun selection, the Don Luis Reserve Concordia (a sixty-forty cabernet sauvignon-shiraz blend) was surprisingly well-made, especially at its $18 pricetag.
Rather than attempting to repeat the soaring experience of Corazon de Tierra, we opted instead for, Ultramarino, an oyster and tapas bar in downtown Ensenada on the advice of our helpful tourism-office guy again. Full disclosure, I strayed from the mission at hand, tempted by the buzz surrounding Baja’s craft beer scene. I happily nursed a pint of Cupacá Obscura, a dark, rich beer that went down very smoothly with Ultramarino’s ethereal tempura Baja oysters and smoky marlin tacos.
The next day, we knew we’d better keep making our way south, but figured we could squeeze in one more stop. This time, I called ahead and made an appointment at Santo Tomás, 30 minutes south of Ensenada and the oldest winery in the Baja, founded in 1888. Laura Zamora, Mexico’s first female winemaker, had been at the helm of this major Mexican winery since 2003, and had recently had some good showings at major European wine shows. She made time for a personalized tour through the vineyards in her pickup – some 16 different varietals from cabernet sauvignon and barbera (one of her personal favorites) to more obscure ones like French colombard and “Mission” grape, a European clone of Listan Prieto that has been thriving in the Baja hundreds of years after it died out in its native Spain.
The vines were anywhere between 25 and 75 years old. Hundred-year-old olive trees formed the windrows. In the tourist-friendly tasting room and wine shop, Zamora and I discussed everything from the winery’s efforts to educated Mexicans about food and wine pairings to the winery’s custom olive oil collection.
Yes, of course, we strongly considered ditching our plans of getting further south in the Baja. We’d barely scratched at the food and wine scene here. But the fishing and beaches of the South Baja beckoned. Given the hundreds of kilometres of driving in front of Mike and I that day, wasn’t about to taste my way through Santo Tomás’ cellar. I did one better. I loaded our truck down with full bottles – a silky barbera, a fruit-bomb of a merlot, a raisiny off-dry white made from 100 percent Mission grapes, and a solera-style dry sherry. Research, friends. It is called research.
Resource Guide for Baja Wine Route
Hotel Endémico, Tecate-Ensenada Highway 3 at km 75, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California; from Canada, toll-free 1-800-337-4685; from Mexico 1-800-123-3454.
Corazón de Tierra Carretera Tecate-Ensenada, Highway 3 at Km 88; 011-52-646-156-8030. (Follow the road signs to Villa del Valle inn.) Open daily.
Vena Cava, in-house winery at Villa del Valle Inn & Corazon de Tierra restaurant; Tecate-Ensenada, Highway 3 at km 88; 011-52-1-646-156-8007. Open year-round 11 am to 5 pm.
Mogor Badán winery; Tecate-Ensenada Highway 3 at km 86.5; 011-52-1-646-177-1484. By appointment only.
Barón Balché, El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California.; 011-52-1-646-155-2141. Open to the public daily 10 am to 4 pm daily.
L.A. Cetto, Carretera Highway 3 Tecate-Ensenada at km 73.5 km, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California; 011-52-1-646-155-2179. Open daily 9:30 am to 3:30 pm.
Ultramarino Oyster Bar, Avenida Ruiz (bewteen Primera and Virgilio Uribe), Ensenada, Baja California.
(no phone, no website)
Santo Tomás winery, Highway 1 south of Ensenada at km 47.5; 011-52-1-646-151-9333. Open daily 10 am to 5 pm. www.santo-tomas.com
Two more websites that are highly useful:
Baja California Secretary of Tourism’s Wine Route page: http://www.discoverbajacalifornia.com/bajas-wine-country.php
San Diego chef Jay Porter’s Blog “My Biased Guide to Mexican Wine Country” from January 3, 2012: http://jayporter.com/2012/01/valle-de-guadalupe-and-ensenada/