Baja: the next wine frontier?
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By L. PIERCE CARSON
Register Staff Writer
Friday, February 08, 2008
Savvy vintners from all over the world are betting that Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley may well be the next frontier for New World wine.
Located less than 100 miles southeast of San Diego — and only a few minutes drive from Ensenada, Baja California’s third largest city — Guadalupe Valley is only now being recognized for its potential as a world-class winegrowing region.
Although wine has been made in the region for centuries, it’s only in the last two decades that producers from around the world began investing in its winemaking operations.
The present and future of Guadalupe Valley was the focus of a seminar and public wine tasting at Copia two weeks ago.
Three representatives of the region’s wine trade brought locals up to date during a morning question-and-answer session, aided by a local vintner who knows Guadalupe Valley well — Mexico-born Amelia Ceja, partner in Ceja Vineyards.
The visitors from Guadalupe Valley represented cellars with varied production totals: Marco Antonio Amador, senior marketing director for the 600,000 case L.A. Cetto; Israel Zenteno, vineyard manager for the 40,000 case Monte Xanic; and Thomas Egli, winemaker for 3,000 case Casa de Piedra.
They spoke about the region’s ideal climate for growing grapes, similar to that of San Diego. Temperatures top out at 90 to 95 degrees on average during summer months and rarely soar above 110 on a few hot days, with winter lows bottoming out at 25 degrees.
Water is scarce, they noted. The winter rain season is short and the area is prone to prolonged droughts.
During the growing season, the temperature ranges from 60s at night to 90s in the daytime, and the area is prone to fog.
Situated at 1,400 feet above sea level, Guadalupe Valley is about 10 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
On average, soils on the flat valley floor are sandy, those on the hillside more alluvial in composition.
At present, the loosely knit association of 27 producers is undertaking a project mapping the region’s diverse soils, and trying to define the valley’s terroir.
About two-thirds the size of the Napa Valley, some 2,200 hectares are planted to grapes. Dry farming is rare, they said, as most vines are irrigated.
The first cabernet sauvignon was planted in Guadalupe Valley in 1974, Zenteno noted, and cabernet is the largest planted grape variety at present. Malbec, tempranillo, grenache and syrah also do well in this clime, he added.
The majority of the (grape) plantings are red,” Zenteno said. “It’s a little tricky to make white wine, although chenin blanc does develop nicely in the valley. But we are just now experimenting (with various grape varieties).”
Amador revealed that his company, L.A. Cetto, has just launched a 10-year vineyard experiment incorporating 50 varietals.
“Guadalupe Valley reminds me of what Napa Valley was in the 1970s,” interjected Ceja, “especially with the experimentation. I believe you will see exceptional wines coming from Guadalupe Valley.” Ceja feels the region will become a prime supplier of first rate cabernet sauvignon.
“Water is the key to growing grapes in Guadalupe Valley,” declared Egli. “We’re running out of water.” He said valley grapegrowers have to share existing water supplies with the city of Ensenada, which is experiencing considerable growth at the moment.
Also discussed were the difficulties in the export/import business involving Mexico and the United States. Ceja said regulations contained in NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have seriously curbed wine trade with our neighbors in Canada and Mexico.
“We can ship (wine) to the rest of the world, but we can’t ship to our neighbors,” she noted.
On top of that, border states impose their own restrictions. For example, an individual returning from Mexico may only bring one liter of wine into California. In Arizona, that amount jumps to six liters.
“Most producers (in Guadalupe Valley) are interested in quality, not in making huge volumes for export,” concluded Egli.
And quality was indeed evident in the wines Egli offered during the afternoon walkaround tasting:
Arenal 2005 Ensemble ($35): a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, barbera and petite sirah for the experimental effort label from Casa de Piedra. A spicy, fruity nose leads to a mouth full of ripe blackberries, with a sweet/tart finish of cassis. A lush, well structured wine from a leader in Guadalupe Valley wine quality.
Casa de Piedra Vino de Piedra Tinto ($55): Piedra is Spanish for stone and this particular medium-bodied red has a mineral edge that undoubtedly speaks to the vineyard’s stony makeup. It’s an attractive blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon (50/50) with lots of strawberry and spice.
For lunch that day, Jeff Mosher, executive chef of Julia’s Kitchen, put together a tasting menu featuring a few of the wines from Guadalupe Valley.
Monte Xanic 2005 Limited Edition Malbec ($15): Paired with the chef’s seared ahi dish — which incorporated quinoa/citrus salad, avocado puree and chipotle beurre blanc — this lush, velvety, well-balanced malbec offered red fruit flavors, integrated with ripe tannins, a touch of mint on the lengthy finish and a hint of oak, that made this exceptional dish even better. It was the best pairing of the day, a smooth, easy-to-drink Bordeaux grape south-of-the-border style, and a bargain at that.
L.A. Cetto 2003 Nebbiolo ($15): Paired with pan-seared beef tenderloin slices and sweet potato puree, this Italian varietal seems to like its new Guadalupe Valley home. An elegant, silky nebbiolo with soft tannins and tasty ripe blackberries from entry to finish. While it’s a bit short on finish, its soft palate and fruity flavors made this an exciting pairing.
A couple of other wines worth seeking out:
L.A. Cetto 2005 Petite Sirah ($6): An inky, perfumy red with sweet tannins and cherry/grape flavors. Lots of stuffing, a vibrant example of this variety with a pleasant ripe blackfruit finish. A great deal.
Monte Xanic 2006 Chenin Blanc/Colombard ($10): Since there’s little more than 1 percent colombard in the blend, it’s anybody’s guess why the firm displays the varietal name so prominently on the label. Slightly off-dry, it tastes of ripe peaches and honey and smells the same. A little zing on the finish makes it a nice sipper to be paired with any number of hors d’oeuvres.
At this point, you’ll have to drive down to Baja to taste and pick up the Casa de Piedra wines. The wines of L.A. Cetto are abundant in the Los Angeles area and are winging their way northward as winery principals have complied with U.S. label regulations. Monte Xanic will be available in California any day now, its owners having jumped through all requisite NAFTA hoops.