Drink More Wine: Head south in search of wine

Exploring wines in Mexico's stunning Valle de Guadalupe.

click to enlarge Winemaker Alvaro Alvarez inside AlXimia's three-tiered bodega. - Jon Palmer Claridge
Jon Palmer Claridge
Winemaker Alvaro Alvarez inside AlXimia's three-tiered bodega.

Visiting vineyards and meeting winemakers is illuminating. It’s the best way to get inside their heads and understand the delicious outcome of their labors when you taste. So, when presented with the opportunity to join a caravan of wine professionals exploring Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley, I jump at the chance.

A mere 90 miles south of downtown San Diego, however, is a whole new world.

Crossing the border in Tijuana, you can’t help but reflect on the riches that we Americans take for granted. The landscape is arid, the poverty evident in every glance. As we approach Ensenada, wine central for Baja California (the Mexican region, not our state), the mountains climb above a valley floor that’s filled with lush irrigated vineyards bursting with grape clusters. Tomorrow, the harvesting of sauvignon blanc begins.

Rising from the dusty earth in surprising, majestic grandeur, AlXimia’s spaceship-esque winery echoes architect Eero Saarinen’s iconic Trans World Airlines terminal at New York’s JFK airport. The magnificent and open three-tiered winery reflects the passions and background of this family of academics.

click to enlarge Entering Baja's Guadalupe Valley, home of the ruta del vino. - Jon Palmer Claridge
Jon Palmer Claridge
Entering Baja's Guadalupe Valley, home of the ruta del vino.

The name comes from alchemy, and each wine represents either water, air, earth or fire. The son of an astrophysicist, Alvaro Alvarez is a Ph.D mathematician turned winemaker. He’s also wisely partnered with chef Martin San Roman, whose La Terrasse restaurant serves impeccable high-technique dishes. Plan to eat on the beautiful terrace when you visit.

Down the road, Las Nubes’ (which translates to “clouds”) splendid new stone winery, built up the contour of the hill, is an engineering triumph with a panoramic view. Since its founding in 2008 by oenologist Victor Segura, fresh vineyards have been planted each year to extend the range of varietals. Now, the bodega is about to launch an experiment with a mixed-growth vineyard, planting two separate rows of new and different grapes to test their fitness for the climate, as well as to examine optimal degrees of irrigation. When the Darwinian trial is over, Las Nubes will have important information essential to the growth of their portfolio in this terroir.

Our last stop is the oldest Mexican-owned winery, Monte Xanic, whose future is now in the hands of a new winemaker, Cristina Pino Villar. Carefully chosen by founder Dr. Hans Paul Backhoff Escudero, Villar is a charming presence at the stunning winery. The vistas match her palpable passion; she’s poised to do great things.

Baja Custom Tours’ Mike Essary selected beautiful wineries with appealing wines and knows all the tricks about safely navigating your way back across the border. All three wineries produce bottles that are deliciously fruit-forward and quaffable. Most have adequate acidity and smooth, integrated tannins. However, they are distinctly New World in style, high in alcohol (14 percent) and reminiscent of the ripeness one expects from Australia.

The offering that catches me off guard is AlXima’s 2012 Pira, a premium wine representing the element of fire. Made from 100-percent barbera grapes, it’s the lone wine that’s Old World at its core. With a long finish and tannins that broaden across the palate, I’d love to drink it with a steak in about 5 to 10 years.

If you’re heading to the West Coast, look south. You’ll be ever so glad you did.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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