Dunne on Wine

Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe an easy spring-break destination for wine lovers

The poshest lodging in the valley is provided by the new resort at the winery El Cielo, a collection that includes 56 suites, two restaurants and a chapel in addition to the winery’s underground tasting room.
The poshest lodging in the valley is provided by the new resort at the winery El Cielo, a collection that includes 56 suites, two restaurants and a chapel in addition to the winery’s underground tasting room.

Friends planning their first trip to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe asked for advice. They turned to us because over the past decade my wife and I customarily have paused a day or two in Valle de Guadalupe on our nearly annual drives to and from the southern reaches of the Baja peninsula.

But why would any wine enthusiast from California, with its numerous and varied wine regions, bother visiting a country whose best known beverages are tequila and beer?

Well, Mexico does have a wine trade. It’s growing, it’s attracting attention and it’s concentrated in Baja California, which produces about 90 percent of the country’s wine, most of it made in Valle de Guadalupe.

And there’s proximity. Valle de Guadalupe is about a two-hour drive south of San Diego, less from Tijuana, and is just inland from Ensenada, a popular stop for cruise ships.

Wine enthusiasts tend to be adventurous. They are eager to find the next wine to excite them, the next winery tasting room to enthrall them with its personality, history, views and so forth. Besides, few Mexican wines are marketed in northern California. To discover and appreciate them, you basically must visit the source. What’s more, Californians can bring just 1 liter per person every 31 days into the state without paying duty. With spring break nearing, let’s go.

What to expect

Valle de Guadalupe is a hardscrabble wine region. Route 3, the main highway through the region, is paved. So is the secondary parallel road, Emiliano Zapata. Many of the roads between the two, as well as roads into the hills north and south, lined with several wineries, are rutted and dusty in the summer, muddy and slick in the winter. High-riding all-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended.

The valley’s approximate 75 wineries and estimated 8,000 acres of grapes – as well as orange and olive groves – are concentrated in an area about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide between the farming settlements of San Antonio de las Minas and Francisco Zarco, just northeast of Ensenada.

Virtually every winery – called vinicola – has a tasting room, almost invariably uncrowded. Tasting fees generally are modest, though as in California the price escalates with the preciousness of the wines. At the new and smart winery Bruma, which we visited in January, we encountered our most expensive tasting fee yet, 600 pesos per person, or the equivalent of about $30 for a tour and sips of three modest wines.

What to taste

Cabernet sauvignon is by far the most popular grape variety grown in Valle de Guadalupe, accounting for nearly a quarter of the enclave’s acreage, according to Baja California agriculture officials. Chenin blanc, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, grenache and merlot also are cultivated extensively, each accounting for 5 to 7 percent of the valley’s varieties.

A distinguishing feature of Valle de Guadalupe’s wine culture, however, is the gusto with which winemakers embrace blends, as opposed to single-variety wines. As a consequence, when people bound for Valle de Guadalupe ask what they should taste I urge them to focus largely on blended wines.

On recent visits, for example, I’ve been especially impressed by El Cielo Winery’s 2012 Polaris (about $50), a largely merlot and cabernet sauvignon mix that comes across as supple and as persistent as an especially refined Bordeaux; El Cielo’s 2014 Perseus (about $40), a firm, spicy and minerally blend of nebbiolo and sangiovese; and the vigorous and refreshing Casa Magoni 2017 Chardonnay/Vermentino (about $18), one of the few Mexican wines to be found in California.

For varietal wines, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, nebbiolo, chardonnay, viognier and grenache have represented Valle de Guadalupe with the most authority and consistency, at least to this palate. Nebbiolo is the big surprise in this lineup, a grape most closely identified with Italy’s noble Barolo and Barbaresco wines. On paper, nebbiolo shouldn’t perform well in torrid Baja, but at Casa Magoni, L.A. Cetto, Las Nubes, MD Vinos and El Cielo the nebbiolos sang with inviting floral aromas, vibrant cherry fruit, supple tannins and intriguing layering.

Other producers to provide consistently reliable lineups of wines have been Casa de Piedra, Adobe Guadalupe, Malagon and Paralelo.

Where to visit

While Valle de Guadalupe is a small agrarian enclave whose modern wine scene is relatively young, dating only from the 1970s, it is appointed with a disproportionate number of wineries worthy of a visit just for their imaginative architecture and joyous spirit.

Upon approaching Vinicola Torres Alegre and Family, visitors get a kick out of carefully climbing the steep, blocky and staggered front steps, intentionally designed to snap visitors out of their casual reverie and pay attention to their surroundings. (Since our first visits, the winery has added more conventional steps at the entrance; take your pick.)

As you approach Vinicola Vena Cava, you might think you have come upon a graveyard of capsized fishing boats, which is basically what they are, now serving as the ceiling for the subterranean winery.

At another subterranean winery, Bruma, a massive dead tree extends from the middle of the barrel room through the ceiling, where its bare arms stretch and twist over a surrounding pond.

The winery Alximia Vino Elemental looks like nothing so much as a massive flying saucer that just has landed in a vineyard, the low-profile Paralelo is an artful study in the exploitation of natural and recycled materials, and Casa Frida is a bright and airy spread inspired by the art of Frida Kahlo.

Where to stay

A decade ago, accommodations in Valle de Guadalupe were scarce, generally cheap and easy to come by at the last minute. That’s changed. Today, reservations well in advance are advised, particularly on weekends.

Prices have escalated even at rustic inns that earlier were inexpensive, though the occasional bargain still can be found. On our latest visit, we came across El Alamo, a small and modest motel we chose in part for being well off busy Route 3 and for being close to one of our favorite restaurants, Laja. The $50 price for two included a surprisingly fresh, wholesome and bountiful breakfast the next morning.

Lodging in Valle de Guadalupe is becoming as creative as the wineries. In January we followed signs simply saying “glamping” until we came across a tidy collection of about a dozen vintage Airstream trailers renting for $45 per person per night.

We moved on, venturing down a particularly rugged road alongside of which suddenly loomed 10 large, clear, pressurized, free-standing bubbles. This is Campera Hotel Burbuja, whose prime selling point is an opportunity to sleep in one of those bubbles, surrounded by a vineyard while looking up at “5 million stars.” Rates start at $145 to $180 per twosome per night, depending on size and season.

And then there was Finca el Mirador, a new complex along Route 3 that includes restaurant, brewery, tasting room and scattering of what looked to be oversized wine barrels that have rolled down the flanking hillside. These are the latest in eccentric rooms in the valley, renting for $200 per night per twosome.

The poshest lodging in the valley is provided by the new resort at the winery El Cielo, a collection that includes 56 suites, two restaurants and a chapel in addition to the winery’s underground tasting room. Trolley rides through the adjoining vineyard are offered, and other wine-related add-ons include a blending session in the cellar, after which guests can take home a labeled bottle of their creation. Daily rates are variable, depending on the season, but can range from $275 for a junior suite in April to $2,400 for a three-bedroom residence in July.

Other traditional and smart lodging can be found at Hotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe, Encuentro Guadalupe, Hacienda Guadalupe, La Villa del Valle and Adobe Guadalupe.

Where to eat

We miss Tacos y Tortas del Valle, a simple roadside stand in Francisco Zarco celebrated for its fat, rich and juicy beef tortas, but it’s closed or relocated and we haven’t been able to find it on recent treks. If our pals find it, I hope they let us know.

Nevertheless, the valley has a scattered community of other traditional Mexican cafes, though the restaurants generating the most buzz among visitors these days tend to be stylish and dear, with a culinary emphasis on regional cookery and fresh local ingredients.

El Cielo, for one, includes two upscale restaurants, Latitud32 and Polaris, offering the traditional cookery of the Baja and Yucatan regions. Similarly, Bruma, another new destination resort, includes the restaurant Fauna and its artful “native cuisine.”

Restaurants we haven’t visited but which have drawn praise from fellow wine travelers include Corazon de Tierra, Brasa del Valle, Finca Altozano and Deckman’s.

A longtime favorite dining destination has been Restaurante Laja, recognized for its professional service and locally inspired, seasonal and modern cuisine. During our most recent visit in January, it still was one of the more civil, polished and comfortable places to dine in the valley, though the intricacy and impact of its cooking had slipped.

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.