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Progressively warmer and sunnier than average winters have been the ongoing barer of good news for the wine producers in Baja Norte's Valle de Guadalupe, which lies just a few miles to the northeast of Ensenada. Many of the most popular varietals grown here originally hail from the Mediterranean region, where dry and sunny weather entices the robust Graciano and marvelously rich Tempranillo grapes in Spain as well as the rich, complex Nebbiolo and Sangiovese strains in Italy to grow ripe, plump and juicy on the vine.
A majority of the local wineries in Valle Guadalupe, a region which annually produces over 90% of Mexican wines, focus their attention upon growing red varietals; although the area also offers a few notable whites such as oaky Chardonnays and crisp Chenin Blancs. Weather is the number one factor relating to the quality of the fruit, followed by proper vineyard management, quantity control, site selection and irrigation. But, however encouraging the growth of the relatively fledgling Baja wine industry has been, there are a couple of obstacles that stand between its current level of operation and achieving the ultimate goal of world class recognition, which many noted wine connoisseurs believe it well deserves.
The most important of these is water, a precious commodity that has become incrementally shorter in supply as population in the burgeoning city of Ensenada continues to grow. However, a number of solutions have been proposed in recent years, including the building of desalination facilities to supply Ensenada. But one of the most innovative proposals is to pipe in gray water from the huge metropolis of Tijuana to use for crop irrigation.
Another issue that inhibits expansion of the industry is the high tax that is levied on wines in Mexico. Once perceived to be the beverage of the wealthy, beer and tequila were viewed as the official libations of the masses and high domestic tariffs were established to make sure that those who enjoyed the privilege of savoring a bottle of fine wine paid their fair share.
The sales and excise tax on wine in the state of Baja California is currently set at 41%. It was supposed to jump up to 45.5% in February of 2012, but Baja's governor signed a last minute reprieve that postponed the tax on local wine producers for at least a year. As a point of comparison, the tax total on an equivalent bottle of California wine sold just across the border is only between 7 and 10 percent.
These days, several of the valleys' local wineries are producing high quality wines that seem to get better with each passing vintage. Amongst them, some of the most prominent and popular vineyards are Malagon, Fuentes. Vinisterra, Tres Valles, Liceaga and Roganto, but there are many smaller operations in the area that also kick out some top flight products.
Wine & Dine
And what would great wine be without appropriately delicious food to accompany it? That issue is never a problem in northern Baja's wine country; there are numerous rustically elegant eateries that festoon the area and offer a surprising variety of tasty options for hungry travelers and wine tasters. One of the most popular of these is Ochento's Pizza.
The fare here is decisively focused upon being unpretentious, fresh and unflinchingly delicious. The availability of fresh, locally grown produce allows them to serve crispy, gourmet quality salads that taste as if the ingredients were just picked from the garden. They also offer a variety of classic pasta preparations, including Alfredo and Bolognaise. But without a doubt, it is the pizza at Ochento's that takes center stage.
And for those who desire an even more cultured dining experience, there is always the legendary Laja, which has been delighting diners for over a decade. Located in Valle Guadalupe since 2001, they use products grown in their own onsite gardens along with other seasonally fresh ingredients that are produced in the region. Laja's upscale contemporary cuisine consistently garners high praise from both diners and restaurant critics alike.
When visiting this captivating region from the north, simply cross over the International Border at San Ysidro and drive south along the picturesque coastal toll road toward Ensenada. About 1.5 miles past the third and final toll station at Playa San Miguel look for a sign reading Tecate Highway 3 or "Ruta Vinedos". Exit to the right and drive toward the foothills for several miles and up a grade until you eventually drop down into the wine country at San Antonio de las Minas.
You can read about fine wines, and you can talk about them, but it's even more fun to actually sample a wine before committing to buy a bottle. And one of the very best ways to get the real flavor and complexity of the Baja wine experience is to visit Valle de Guadalupe yourself!