Magazine article Sunset

¡Viva El Vino!

Magazine article Sunset

¡Viva El Vino!

Article excerpt

The West's most exciting new wine country is in Raja California. SARA SCHNEIDER travels Mexico's Guadalupe Valley

Some people like to compare the view down-valley from the Monte Xanic Winery to the Napa Valley of 30 years ago. But others consider the Guadalupe Valley's vineyards, olive groves, and farms more like agriculturally diverse Sonoma County.

These comparisons are for us; the valley doesn't need them. Angling northeast from Ensenada in Baja California, 1½ hours from San Diego, the Guadalupe Valley is changing at an astonishing rate. New vineyards are carpeting the land; new wineries are rising, crafted from the region's distinctive honey-colored stone. And last year a Guadalupe Valley-grown wine won a blind tasting over all of its counterparts in Spain. The story of winemaking in the Guadalupe Valley involves priests and revolution, engineers and oceanographers. And how a peninsula more famous for tequila and cerveza is joining the great wine regions of the world.

Hugo d'Acosta pours a deep red TempranilloCabernet blend from an upended barrel in his Casa de Piedra winery. It was this wine-earthy, fruitythat outshone the Spaniards last year.

If there is one figure who exemplifies the face of Baja winemaking, it is d'Acosta. He arrived in the valley armed with a Ph.D. in enology from the University of Montpellier in France and winemaking experience in both Italy and the Napa Valley.

But the valley he moved into is sort of a Wild West of vines. During the last century, every player on the Baja wine scene planted the wines he knew, building to a wild varietal muddle now: Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, and more.

D'Acosta is trying to make sense of it. The exterior of his stone winery is old school, but inside, the temperature-controlled tanks and subterranean barrel-room design are cutting edge. With a researcher's passion, d'Acosta is finding out which grapes do well in what parts of the valley, and what specific traits the places bring to the grapes.

His next step is to build a new winery where he'll bottle the same varieties grown in different parts of the valley separately; he's named it Paralelo, or Parallel.

"When you are here," d'Acosta says, "you need to take your French winemaking book, your Spanish winemaking book, and your German winemaking book, and have a barbecue."

It's not surprising that there's wine in Guadalupe Valley. The Franciscan fathers who lined California with Spanish missions in the 17th and 18th centuries came to Baja first. And with the fathersalways-came sacramental wine and the means to make it. They brought with them what came to be called the Mission grape, the first European Vitis vinifera variety this side of the Atlantic.

What they discovered, in time, was that the Voile de Guadalupe was capable of producing special grapes-better than those grown elsewhere in Mexico. To the north, south, and east, the valley is cupped by dramatic mountain ranges, which allow ocean breezes to flow in from the west and then hold them there. As a result, the valley doesn't get as hot as you might expect from its southerly location. The grapes can hold onto their all-important acid, and the growing season is long; complex, concentrated flavors are a given.

Given these merits, it's surprising that there isn't more wine in Baja California. But from the start, Spain felt threatened by Mexico's bounty. …

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