Looking at the trailblazing winery that Alonso Granados runs in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, it’s hard to believe that a decade ago he didn’t even know wine was made from grapes.
The then student lawyer had returned home for a family dinner when a winemaker his father had hired brought out some wine he had produced off the family property. His father had bought the land with the intention of re-selling it, but Alonso soon had other ideas.
“I was in my last year of law school and I came back with a very strange feeling that I wanted to leave my career and start winemaking. I googled schools to study at. I finished my degree and booked my ticket and left for Spain to study winemaking. It was the best thing I ever did.”
In August 2015, Alonso opened Decantos Vinícola, an imposing winery and tasting room that rises out of the parched landscape like a mirage on the horizon. In the Old World, it is often said that the more vines struggle the better the wine, and when you see how vines grow on some of the rocky slopes in Spain, you understand the truth in that.
It also seems to ring true in the dry and barren Valle de Guadalupe region, north of the city of Ensenada in Baja California, the long peninsula extending down from San Diego. A 90-minute drive from the US border, this is Mexico’s most up and coming wine region, a place where sophistication and innovation sit side by side with rustic authenticity.
Many of the roads are still rutted and unpaved but they lead visitors to impressive cellar doors, elegant and comfortable accommodations, and world-class restaurants and bars. Some have likened it to the Napa Valley of 30 years ago but that would be doing both the Napa and Valle de Guadalupe a disservice.
It has a character and a charm all its own, a low-key feel that is assuredly Mexican but outward-looking enough to take the best winemaking and other traditions from abroad and develop them into its own.
Much of this story is told in the Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Vines and Wines), a great introduction to the region and worth seeing for its artefacts, artworks and splendid view, although unfortunately little of the signage is in English, so you might need a guide.
Here you’ll learn how wine was introduced by missionaries in the 1700s, how Russian immigrants planted vines in the early 1900s, and how the last few decades have seen a boom in the development of Valle de Guadalupe as a wine region, credited to three winemakers in particular: Santo Tomás, Cetto and Domecq.
Two decades ago, you could count Baja’s wineries on both hands. Today, the Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) boasts more than 120 wineries, along with restaurants, art galleries, boutique hotels, ranches and resorts. The Mediterranean-like weather, coupled with unforgettable landscapes – especially around the coastline and mountain ranges – add to its appeal.
Distinct ‘Baja Med’ cuisine
As well as wine to suit all tastes, olive oil, cheese, chocolates, locally roasted coffee, craft beer, and other gourmet offerings have put this region on the gastronomic map. The region boasts several restaurants on the list of Latin America’s 50 best, and a distinct local cuisine – referred to increasingly as Baja Med – is emerging.
One of its best-known exponents is Javier Plascencia, who has restaurants in San Diego and Tijuana, as well as the hugely popular Finca Altozano in Valle de Guadalupe. This casual indoor-outdoor eatery is right on trend in both concept and menu, from the cucumber and mint drinks in mason glasses to the succulent lamb roasted on the restaurant’s wood-fired grill.
From the deck there are panoramic views over the vineyard, kitchen garden, a bakery where they do all their own bread, animal pens, a coffee spot serving locally roasted coffee, and a casual eating area with food truck. Equally on trend is the massive open-air wine bar, Bodegas del Valle, across the road from the Museum of Vines and Wines. It has 8,000 bottles of wine behind the bar and an amphitheatre catering to music lovers.
Pioneer of Baja Med cuisine, Miguel Angel Guerrero, has four restaurants including La Esperanza with sweeping view of the Cetto vineyards. An avid hunter, fisherman and diver, he draws on Mexican, Mediterranean and Oriental influences to create dishes such as zucchini carpaccio with nine chilli sauce, and octopus cooked in black tea for tenderness.
With a large Chinese community just south of the Valle, the area is reputed to have some of Mexico’s best Asian food. Miguel’s Spanish heritage introduced him to Mediterranean cuisines, and Baja’s Mediterranean-like weather allows him to grow olives, herbs, fruit and vegetables, all of which he integrates into his dishes. He hunts for rabbit, quail, and pheasant, making this a true paddock to plate experience.
Another restaurant combining Mediterranean and Asian influences with Mexican flavours is Manzanilla, in Ensenada. Listed in the top 50 of restaurants in Mexico, it is run by chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris, who regularly appear on Mexican TV. They are great advocates for local and organic and their six-course tasting menu is prepared with flair and creativity. This is a classy restaurant, dark and moody with wingback chairs, red chandeliers and a huge old mahogany bar.
A great place to stop for breakfast on the way to the wineries is Leonardo’s, on Highway 3 in San Antonio De Las Minas. It’s popular with locals for its egg and machaca (shredded meat) dishes and especially for its towering apple pie. Another popular local hangout is the rustic La Cocina de Doña Esthela. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Esthela baking empañadas in the adobe oven outside, and you’ll be able to feast on them straight from the oven.
Although there is plenty of accommodation in Ensenada and elsewhere on the coast, the choice is more restricted within the Valle. We loved Hotel Boutique which with just 24 guest rooms is, well… boutique. It is simple but sweet with complimentary toiletries made from local grapes and olives. The restaurant here, Fuego, also has an up and coming Baja Med chef, Mario Peralta.
One of the region’s loveliest guesthouses is Adobe Guadalupe, an elegant inn built by an American businessman and his Dutch wife, who came to the valley to make wine and raise Azteca horses. After the loss of her son and more recently her husband, Tru Miller, is still very much involved in running the property.
The six guest rooms offer a peaceful retreat with a gorgeous courtyard, swimming pool and garden, the smell of rosemary lingering everywhere. The Adobe Guadalupe wines, available in California and Chicago, are named for the archangels, as director of operations Luis Garcia tells us “Tru is a lady who believes in signs”.
While the Rosé, Uriel, is an easy quaffer, it is the red blends that reign: Gabriel, a Bordeaux-style blend; Kerubiel, a Rhone Valley-style blend; Serafiel, a Cabernet/Syrah blend; and the pinnacle, Raphael, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Nebbiolo.
In devising your own wine trail, take your pick from industrial-scale producers, like L.A. Cetto, Santo Tomás, and Casa Pedro Domecq, to boutique wineries and experimental new producers.
L.A. Cetto is responsible for 60% of Mexico’s production and exports to 35 countries. Renowned particularly for its Petit Syrah and Nebbiolo, we also enjoyed its Chardonnay, barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc and stunning Moscato dessert wine, Passito.
Finca La Carrodilla has pinned its success on being one of Valle de Guadalupe’s few certified organic vineyards. It’s amazing what the earth can provide when properly nurtured. A 1½ acre garden adjoining the vineyard bursts at the seams with carrots, heirloom tomatoes, edible flowers, baby kale, melons, beetroot, peppers, basil, artichokes, lavender, strawberries, Chinese melons and other produce that supplies their restaurant and is traded with local businesses.
The ‘wild west of wine’
Jonathan Rivera guides visitors through the wines, including a wild fermented Chenin Blanc – “Chenin does very well in this region” – a funky Tempranillo and a medium-bodied red blend, Canto de Luna. “The valley is the wild west of wine right now,” he said. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo are the top three varieties planted here. We’re not covered by an AOC, DOC or appellations. We have the liberty of experimenting. We’re breaking the paradigm of ‘it grows together, it goes together’.”
This same willingness to experiment led Alonso Granados to personally design the Decantos winery and everything in it. By using gravity to transfer wine from tank to barrel, he completely eliminates pumps, helping to maintain the integrity of the wine’s aroma, flavour, and colour.
Like many of the new buildings springing up in the Valle, Decantos is as impressive to architecture lovers as it is to wine connoisseurs. The glass-walled pavilion is modern and minimalist, with an interior balcony overlooking the winery’s inner workings.
Decantos has around 40 acres, all of it planted to Carignan, but it buys or exchanges enough to make more than 30 varietals. Most wines in the Valle are blends but Alonso is on a mission to make a single varietal from every one of the region’s varieties, although his premium wine, 981, is a blend.
Alonso ended up spending eight years working in La Rioja. “It was the best thing I ever did. I’m never going back to being a lawyer.” As for the wine that first captured his interest? “To tell you the truth, the wine was awful but it tasted fine because it was a family wine.”
If you go
Club Tengo Hambre and Turista Libre offer guided food and wine tours. Uber Valle enables Uber users to hail a wine country chauffeur for a day.