Graeme Green sets out to explore the Guadalupe Valley wine scene in northern Mexico.
“Let me introduce you to all the angels,” Mara Bello suggests. She uncorks a bottle and pours, introducing me first to Rafael (Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo), then Gabriel (Merlot, Cab, Malbec) and later, Serafiel (Cab, Syrah).
It’s a heavenly host. “All our wines are named after angels,” Bello explains, down in the tasting rooms at Adobe Guadalupe. It sounds like a playful idea, but there’s a story behind it. “The owner lost her son in a car accident. She was devastated and she wanted to honour him, so she decided to name the wines after angels.”
The countryside winery is owned and run by Tru Miller, originally from The Netherlands. As well as wine, they make a good mezcal (called Lucifer), a smooth tequila, craft beers, and also operate a B&B and stables. “When I came to the Guadalupe Valley, there was nothing,” Miller tells me, over a boozy lunch at their food truck, Azteca horses strutting past. “The growth has been incredible, and all the wineries are done with such passion. Everyone has their own personality.”
The Adobe Guadalupe winery © Graeme Green
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Discovering the Guadalupe Valley
90 per cent of Mexico’s wine production comes from the Guadalupe Valley in Ensenada, high up in the Baja California peninsula in the north of the country. In the past, Baja produced mainly cheap, low-quality wines, but since the late 1980s and 1990s, there’s been a shift in the quality of Guadalupe Valley wine. Now, wineries like Monte Xanic and winemakers across the Valley, such as Hugo D’Acosta and Camillo Magoni, are focused on quality over quantity. It has become the country’s most respected wine region, with around 150 wineries, many of them producing world-class vino. Some have called it the ‘new Napa’, a tag most locals reject; they’re happier to forge their own identity.
It’s a 90-minute drive from Tijuana, close to the US border, south to ‘the Valley’, as it’s known. From the Pacific ocean, we head inland on the Ruta del Vino through fields with tidy rows of green vines and hills with granite boulders tumbled across them.
The private rooms, or 'lofts' at Encuentro Guadalupe © Graeme Green
Tasting Guadalupe Valley wine... and food
Over five days, we visit some of the Valley’s most exciting wineries and restaurants, such as Decantos, a stylish winery producing 45 varietals, and Origen, hotel Encuentro Guadalupe’s restaurant, whose inventive menu includes black bean tamal with yellow mole (sauce) and a dessert of parsley tart with lemongrass.
There’s a feeling of people with ideas – not just winemakers but young chefs, hotel owners and craft beer brewers – letting loose in this ‘young’ wine region. We spend an afternoon at Península en el Valle, where one of the oldest wine factories in the valley is being transformed into an exhibition space for artists. Yolanda Martinez and Gustavo Meillon Bajalupano introduce us to their Bajalupano wines next door, including a medal-winning Malbec.
The wine keeps flowing through lunch. At a table next to the vines, Península’s chef Daniel Benitez Bremer presents his ‘special ceviche’ with yellowtail, serrano pepper and flowers, Oaxaca cheese and Pismo clam cooked in the shell over the fire, and a rich chunk of tuna belly. “Ensenada is similar to the Mediterranean climate”, Bremer says, explaining the region’s trend for ‘Baja-Med’ cuisine. “We have the best wines, but also olive oil, vegetables, incredible fish and seafood. Of course, it’s Mexico, so we have a lot of peppers, dried chillies... It’s the best place to be a chef.”
Chef Daniel Benitez Bremer cooks tuna belly at Península en el Valle © Graeme Green
From wine to craft beer
We drive out to the Ensenada coast the next day to first abseil down 18-metre cliffs at Punta Banda, then across a 30-metre rope to the far side of a rock pool, before hiking and climbing along the rocks to the beach. Picking up our kayaks, we paddle out of the bay and onto the rolling Pacific swell. Pelicans, cormorants and sea lions join us as we make our way past jagged volcanic cliffs, stopping at La Bufadora to watch one of the world’s biggest blowholes. “‘La Bufadora’ means the snorting sound a bull [makes],” kayak instructor Victor León tells me, as waves hit the cave. Trapped air inside shoots water 20 metres into the air. “So much pressure, so much energy,” León says, admiringly.
Having earned a drink, we stop at Agua Mala Brewery tasting room on the coast. It takes a couple of hours to work through from malty pilsner (Sirena) and hoppy pale ale (Mako) to more creative brews, like an untitled ale with herbs foraged from Baja’s mountains. “It’s the Baja character to be creative. Brewing beer’s a lot of fun. But sometimes we have weird ideas,” head brewer Alfredo Viloria admits, pouring a closing Bourbon Stout.
Alfredo Viloria, head brewer at Agua Mala brewery © Graeme Green
The secret to happiness
Working with booze, or at least doing what you love, seems to be the route to happiness. On our final morning, we have cheese and wine with Camillo Magoni, sitting outside his boutique winery, Magoni, among the olive trees. A 76-year-old wine master, originally from Italy, Magoni moved to Mexico in 1957 and has spent his years in Baja California experimenting with grapes and processes.
He helped develop Nebbiolo, the grape most likely to give Mexico it’s ‘icon wine’ – like Malbec is for Argentina. His Nebbiolo is the best Guadalupe Valley wine we taste during the trip. “You only live once. Money’s not important. In life, the only thing is to be happy,” Magoni shares with me, over a second glass of Nebbiolo. “I always say that if you have a problem, you drink a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s not enough. Second bottle, maybe still not enough. But,” he laughs, “by the third bottle, all your problems go away.”
The author travelled as a guest of the Baja Norte tourist board; Accommodation with Encuentro Guadalupe. Kayaking with Shawii. British Airways have return flights from Heathrow to Tijuana, via Mexico City, from £802. Guadalupe Valley tours can be arranged with Boca Roja Wine Adventures.