Baja California, Mexico’s Wine Country
Tequila, mezcal, Corona, these are the beverages that come to mind when you think of Mexico. But tucked away in the far, top corner folks are making some pretty impressive wines. The Baja California area produces 90% of the country’s wine.
We drove through softly winding roads like a buoy in the water, dipping gently into small valleys and out again.The lullaby-like drive is pretty and pleasant enough all its own. Recent heavy rains had painted the normally dry, yellow landscape with a fresh coat of spring-green pigment. While the pacific plays an important role in softening the harsh conditions of the Mexican desert, the usually dry, yellow landscape is not generally considered ideal for growing grapes and yet Baja makes magic happen.
Baja only sees a small number of tourists, to begin with. It was off season when I was there and other souls were nearly nonexistent. There are no big house names boasting giant production monstrosities, or at least not yet. For now, Baja still is made up of small, boutique wineries focused on quality and product. Evidence of these modest wineries pops up subtly along the way making finding desired spots to visit more like a scavenger hunt and less obvious like well-known wine regions competing for your attention. Baja is confident without being pushy.
In March, the branches are bare, twisted around thin, metal wires threatening to snap in the dry heat. They looked brittle and fragile exposed to the elements, but this is a very special kind of beauty. It’s not the conventional scenery we expect of wine valleys that are covered with lush green leaves and bursting with juicy beads of greens and reds. This is a special time when the potential of the desired outcome has to be believed in. This is where hope is cultivated before the literal fruits of one’s labor are ripe, ready and full of reassurance. The is the duration of uncertainty. Like in life, these moments are highly underrated.
The arrival of grapes in Baja dates back to the 16th century. Although indigenous grapes already existed in the region, the Spanish brought various vines from Europe. 1699, Charles II of Spain prohibited winemaking in Mexico, with the exception of wine for Church. After the ban was lifted the Mexican Revolution impacted production. Interest and production finally increased post-Independence, but a 40% tax still causes difficulty for sales. I imagine Baja would have exploded into a well know and respected wine region long ago if it wasn’t for these endless types of political restrictions.
Maybe the lack of competition or just low expectation from consumers and the wine world at large is what gives Baja an undeniable, bubbling energy and freedom for experimentation. Winemakers are playing around with several varietals at a time and many that unexpectedly thrive in this region. Italian varietals are rampant. Most commonly found varietals include Nebbiolo, cabernet, grenache, tempranillo, dolcetto, syrah, petite Sirah, and Carmenere. The whites are fewer with Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, Chenin blanc and viognier dominating. But what makes this seeminly hodge podge list of grapes so interesting is the blends being made with them. How often do you find a Nebbiolo and Cab together? This is what gives Baja it’s unique edge.
With wine comes food. Baja is seeing a surge in talented chefs taking notice and taking to the kitchens making for some really exceptional and complimentary food- wine creations that are elevating the Mexican food scene in a fresh, new way.
Baja is like the wild west of wine country. It’s laid back attitude and open, rural roads make roadside camping a cinch and a perfect way to end a flawless day of discovering unexpected flavors of Mexico. I recommend a few laps and as many tastings as you can handle along the way. Each winery was surprisingly unique in their own way, full of personal touches and individuality.
Salud y gracias, Baja California, Mexico.