Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Northern Baja wineries sprouting with eco-flair

The roof of the main building at Alximia winery in Baja collects rainwater and captures maritime breezes blowing across the valley, cooling the facility by 10 degrees even during the summer.
The roof of the main building at Alximia winery in Baja collects rainwater and captures maritime breezes blowing across the valley, cooling the facility by 10 degrees even during the summer.

Except for plastic bottles and plastic bags, Mexicans recycle with a vengeance. Anything that outlives its original purpose almost inevitably is repurposed. Is there another country with fewer antiques shops?

Little wonder, then, that all sorts of distressed yet sturdy materials – faded railroad ties, rusty factory doors, even the hulls of weathered fishing boats – are being insinuated into the design of wineries in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most productive and prominent wine region.

Earlier this winter, we made our first return visit to Valle de Guadalupe in nearly two years. Despite drought during that stretch, coming upon the area’s persistent water woes – fretful growers talk of either importing treated wastewater from Tijuana or building a desalination plant along the nearby Pacific Ocean – vineyards continue to expand and wineries to proliferate. The latest guide to northern Baja’s “Ruta del Vino” lists 75 vinicolas – wineries – in the compact valley, which is just northeast of Ensenada, an approximate 90-minute drive from San Diego.

During this tour, we found three wineries that coupled imaginative environmentally sensitive design with creative and careful wines.

Alximia: Vino Elemental

The people behind it: A decade ago, Alvaro Alvarez, who grew up in nearby Ensenada and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Maryland, teamed up with his astronomer father, his teacher mother and his brothers, one with a degree in chemistry, the other with an MBA, to plant vines in the valley as a hobby. That pastime has evolved into the winery Alximia, a play on “alchemy” to represent the transformation of earthly elements into wine.

What sets it apart: The round, sculptural, three-level winery may be the most visually striking in the valley, often compared to a flying saucer. The design is all practical, however, says Alvarez. Grape-processing starts with destemming on the top floor, followed by fermentation on the second and aging in the subterranean barrel room, the flow relying on gravity, reducing power demands. The sweeping and curling roof is meant to collect rainwater and to capture and circulate maritime breezes blowing across the valley, cooling the facility by 10 degrees even during the summer. Portal windows retrieved from old ships are set into the walls on the top floor, each providing a different postcard-worthy glimpse of the countryside. Alximia also is one of few wineries in the valley to include an on-site restaurant.

Why Valle de Guadalupe: “I’m from here; that’s the first reason,” Alvarez says. “Second, Baja California is the region par excellence in Mexico for winemaking. We’re close to the sea. We have the elevation. And third, there’s a generous community of enologists here. That helps to get established.”

Don’t miss: As are several other Valle de Guadalupe winemakers, Alvarez is keener on creating atypical and complex blends than concentrating on straightforward varietal wines. His proprietary blends generally are named after the four basic elements, each meant to suggest the kind of food with which they are best paired. “Aqua,” for example, is intended to go with foods harvested from waters. His most impressive blends are the 2012 Baja California Libis, a jammy, vital and enduring blend of petit verdot, zinfandel and syrah (300 pesos, or about $22); and the 2012 Baja California Gaia (also about $22), a bright, youthful, vigorous and solidly structured blend of cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and syrah. Alvarez is mindful of the popularity of varietal wines, however, and turns out two that are exceptionally clean and balanced: the 2013 Baja California Talisman (about $15), a richly scented and lushly fruity yet surprisingly crisp viognier; and the 2012 Baja California Pira (about $40), a ripe, resonating and generously oaked barbera.

The particulars: The tasting room is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. For directions and other information, visit the winery’s website, www.alximia.com.

Concierto Enologico

The people behind it: Concierto Enologico is new and not quite finished, yet is producing wines. All 3,000 cases of each vintage are sold in Mexico City. The owners weren’t there when we cruised by, but the winemaker, Armando Orozco, showed us around. He grew up in Mexicali, earned a degree in chemistry at the University of Tijuana, and then became attracted to winemaking.

What sets it apart: The newer wineries of Valle de Guadalupe like to make their presence known immediately, either by being monumental or being perched high on the slopes that bracket the valley, or both. Concierto Enologico is an exception. It isn’t particularly large, and it sits in the middle of the valley floor, but it stands out for its isolation, bright color, stout profile and sturdy construction, which includes materials that range from old railroad ties to overlapping slabs of slate meant to mimic the scales of the venomous cascabel snake. Enologically, Concierto is intent on making fine but unpretentious wines for the dinner table. “We believe that wine is food, that it is part of the decoration of the house, so we create wines for that concept,” says Orozco. “Because we are making a product for people we cannot take a risk in the quality of that product. We’re making wine from the people for the people.”

Why Valle de Guadalupe: “Water is a problem. It’s limited. But the condition of everything else for growing grapes is the best in Mexico,” Orozco says.

Don’t miss: Orozco hopes to open the winery’s tasting room, which will be atop a cave now being excavated next to the structure, in May or June. He pulled from the barrel, however, a sample of his 2013 Forza, a proprietary blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and barbera. When released, the wine is expected to sell for $28. It was densely colored, muscular, jammy and spicy, its edges smoothed by its time in oak. Concierto’s flagship wine also is a proprietary blend, Concierto, the current nonvintage release being a deeply colored, full-bodied and powerfully fruity mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and ruby cabernet; it sells for the equivalent of $42.

The particulars: For directions and to track the progress of Concierto’s tasting room, visit the website www.conciertoenologico.com.

Vena Cava

The people behind it: Los Angelenos Phil and Eileen Gregory – he managed a recording studio, she filmed documentaries – first visited Valle de Guadalupe a little more than a decade ago. The area immediately captivated them. They bought 70 acres, moved their trailer onto the plot and quickly built one of the enclave’s early luxury inns, La Villa del Valle. They soon started to make wine at a local cooperative, and four years ago added an on-site winery for their brand, Vena Cava.

What sets it apart: At first glance, Vena Cava looks like nothing more than a graveyard of capsized fishing boats surrounded by vines. The hulls, however, constitute the ceiling of the subterranean winery; one is over the combination barrel room and tasting counter, another is over the lab, and so forth. The Gregorys retained architect Alejandro D’Acosta to design the winery; he’s celebrated in the valley for recycling all sorts of materials in his structures. “I asked Alejandro to build me a winery that represented my life now and my life in sailboats,” says Phil Gregory, who at one time made his living moving sailboats about Europe, the Caribbean and the United States. “And I also told him I wanted it funky.” As to his style of wines, he says: “In terms of the taste of the wines I make here, I think they are quite complex. I like to have a lot of different flavors in my wines. I want them to go well with food – they aren’t to elbow food out of the way.”

Why Valle de Guadalupe: “Eleven years ago, when we were planning to visit Baja to see the whales, a friend told us that the best wine-growing region in Mexico was just outside of Ensenada. We’d never heard of it, but we fell in love with this place immediately, and within four weeks had found this spot and agreed to buy it,” Phil Gregory recalls. The setting gives him fruit with both the flavor and the acidity that he seeks in his wines, which are styled on the dry side. He appreciates that the valley has few vineyard pests, and that its combination of wind and sun lessens the chances of mold. And while he is based in Valle de Guadalupe, he doesn’t rely on it alone for grapes. In his approach to making wine he likes to tinker with various yeasts, types of barrels and so forth, starting with grapes from other northern Baja farming districts such as Valle de San Vicente and Oso Negros.

Don’t miss: Tempranillo is the wine for which Vena Cava is best known; the 2012 version features a rich scent, juicy red fruit and a streak of spice on a steely frame. His lightly colored and lightly oaked 2012 Clarete is a lithe and zesty grenache. His aptly named 2012 Big Blend is a full-bodied, sweetly fruity and invitingly aromatic mix of syrah, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and grenache. He is most proud, however, of his brassy and biscuity 2011 Extra Brut Rose, a pretty sparkling wine consisting of 83 percent barbera, with the rest sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and viognier. His wines generally sell for around $25.

The particulars: The tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with the last pouring to commence at 4 p.m. For additional information, visit

www.venacavawine.com.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

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