Ensenada, Mexico — THIS is not the place where you expect to find a wine country. You're racing along Highway 3, after all, the road that links Tecate to the coast. And when was the last time you connected Ensenada and wine, anyway? Tecate? Isn't that beer country?
But here you are, on a spectacular drive through hilly vistas studded with huge boulders. You're passing ranches and stands that sell locally produced honey and dates, fava beans, chorizo, cheese and olive oil. There's even an ostrich farm -- the word on the sign is avestruz.
And then you're at Kilometer 86.5, at the ranch called El Mogor, where winemaker Antonio Badan lives.
Badan is among a small group of serious vintners transforming the Valle de Guadalupe, or Guadalupe Valley. Not so long ago, this was a sleepy agricultural area. There were some wines, but none of them memorable. Now, small-scale winemakers from Mexico, Europe and Chile have moved in, improved the vineyards and begun to compete with the world's best. They have the right climate: hot summer days tempered by ocean breezes and cool nights. And the vineyards are filled with almost every grape on the planet: Cabernet, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Syrah -- all, and more, are being grown here.
And slowly, the world is beginning to discover the wines.
At El Mogor, Badan lives in a charming old ranch house with a beautiful kitchen, a wood beamed ceiling and old Mexican tile. Here you might find Badan himself, pouring wines as he did for me, on the wooden kitchen counter beside the windows that look out on the grounds. The ranch's 2,000 acres include a farm that produces vegetables and greens for restaurants from Ensenada to Mexico City. Chickens wander freely. Some of the eggs turn up at breakfast in the nearby inn, Adobe Guadalupe.
His winery, Mogor-Badan, produced just 300 cases last year. Badan handles every aspect of the winemaking himself, from crushing the grapes to pasting on the labels, which he designed using type from an old print shop in Paris.
"I think the point of the wine is that is it is absolutely personal," he says.
The Mogor-Badan red blends Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, most of it from a vineyard planted 50 years ago by Badan's father. The 2000 red was so delicious, I dreamed about it until I finally drove back to the winery to buy a bottle.
The white is 100% Chasselas, probably the only Chasselas on the continent, Badan says. His family originated in Switzerland, where this grape, known as Fendant, is the predominant white wine grape.
"It is the authentic wine for making cheese fondue and to drink with it," says Badan. "It's light. It's dry. It goes absolutely divinely with the local oysters and mussels." An oceanographer and self-taught winemaker, Badan found the vines in a neglected vineyard planted decades ago.
In fact, wine grapes were planted in the region as early as the 17th century. But it wasn't until the 1980s that winemaking began to come into its own. In the 1980s and '90s, Hugo D'Acosta of Bodegas de Santo Tomas winery and Hans Backhoff of Monte Xanic winery became stars as they improved winemaking techniques and produced higher quality wine than the area had seen. D'Acosta now has his own winery, Casa de Piedra, makes wine for Adobe Guadalupe and teaches fledgling winemakers. The last 10 years have brought more wineries to the Guadalupe Valley and many more premium wines, some from small scale "garage" producers.
Among the newest is Macouzet, a label of Vinisterra, which was founded by Guillermo Rodriguez Macouzet, an Ensenada businessman. Don't even try to find the winery without calling first. It's a converted house in San Antonio de Las Minas, the first town as you enter wine country, well off the highway and unmarked. The vineyards have not yet matured, so the wines are either blended from purchased wine or made from grapes grown in leased vineyards. The first releases, out last fall, are three reds and a Chardonnay. In about five years, the company will release wines from its own vineyards, made in a projected $2-million winery near the present facility.
Winemaker Christoph Gaertner, who is from Switzerland and who worked previously at Santo Tomas, loves the area and won't compare its wine to that of other parts of the world. "It's like Baja California, with full, ripe grapes, full body," he says. "It's an excellent region. It's like a treasure island. I have to let people know what we have. Nobody believes Mexico can produce such wine, but we know and believe in it."
Vina de Liceaga, not far beyond San Antonio de Las Minas, is easy to spot from the road because the front of the winery is painted bright yellow. In addition to barrels and fermenting tanks, it contains a brand-new Italian grappa still that will go into operation after this year's grape harvest. (Fernando Martain of Valmar is also trying his hand at grappa, but none has been released. Valmar brandy, however, may be out by the end of the year.)