The last of the fall leaves cling to the dark twisted vines. The Guadalupe Valley lays dormant in the winter months. The deep roots hold the life of the vine until spring. From the town of Fancisco Zarco, Chateau Camou lies north in the foothills of Cañada del Trigo. Following a long dirt road, it becomes evident this valley has a volcanic past. Granite boulders are imbedded and exposed by time and hold the ancient story as they stand like sentinels. A road runner scurries through the dry grasses, swishing its long-feathered tail and a tiny Canyon Wren hunts for insects.
Chateau Camou is one of the oldest wineries in the valley. The stark white building, like a bastion of its past, is a serious icon in the rugged terrain. Easy parking and a short flight of stairs, the wine tasting is found through a brick arch and heavy wooden portal. Walking within the long cavernous room, there is a sense of having entered a quiet monastery and the long hallway is lined with tables and chairs made from the old oak barrels.
Before the turn of this century there were very few wineries in full operation, Chateau Camou was one of them. Its history includes the Baja California winemaker Don Victor Torres, who is well-known throughout the wine world as the only man in Mexico with a doctorate in Oenology. He studied in France the classic style of Bordeaux wines, yet he was always a visionary. He challenged tradition and began to create a wine for Chateau Camou that was classic, yet was distinctively with Baja California’s influence of soil and climate. Today he is a consultant worldwide and returns to his own winery in the valley, Torres Alegre.
Alberto Méndez greets me and presents the first tasting of the four labeled Umbral wines. Umbral is Spanish for threshold. It is important for the wine industry to create wines for Mexican nationals who have yet to be introduced to wine from their own country. These Umbral wines are considered a “doorway” into the adventure of wine tasting and these four presented are meant to bring a true experience of Baja wines for most pallets. Each is meant to be an invitation and not a challenge. The first presentation is the 2016 Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc. It has six months in new French oak and is held in the bottle for six months before it is released. Its color, a golden yellow with nice transparency, has a refreshing invitation. The blend offers a crisp fruity beginning of passion fruit, guava, peach and a hint of olive. Alberto points out that within the soil where all things grow, the soil itself transports the tastes of the earth into the vine. In this area where olive trees flourish, this essence can find its way into the wine.
Alberto pours a 2016, 100% Chardonnay. This Chardonnay, unlike many other Chardonnay being produced in the valley, is fermented in oak, not stainless steel. It is then held in the new French oak for six months, then held in the bottle one full year before it is released to the public. The more Alberto spoke of the process of winemaking, the more one can understand that it is really an art form to create excellent wine. It is always about taking risks. The risks have to factor in the micro-climate of the region's elements of sun, soil, and water. Alberto points out that there are 60 year old vines in production today and the maturity of the vines play an important part in the finish. The Chardonnay has a clean and brilliant color with a delicate aroma of tropical fruits, honey, a touch of toasted oak, and a lovely buttery finish.
Moving on into the red wines, Alberto presents a 2014 Cabernet and Merlot blend. This has been held in both American and “second-use” French oak for a year and surprisingly held 2 years in the bottle. It has developed an intensity and could be called a bit edgy for a younger wine. Wine connoisseurs might be a little surprised by the depth of its color, ripe fruit aroma and black cherry that lingers in the mouth. To complete the tasting, Alberto pours a 2014, 100% Cabernet with 2 years in new French oak and one year in the bottle. This wine is bold, influenced by its long rest in new oak. Dark fruit, licorice, with an appealing velvety aftertaste. One wants to linger with this wine, adding, perhaps, a dark chocolate treat and good company.
Alberto reiterates that while Chateau Camou still clings to the French Bordeaux beginnings, it is not ruled by the French standards, but allows for changes that are unique to Baja California. The wines from here have won many awards worldwide, including being highly regarded in French competition. Alberto shares that the 2004 El Gran Vino Tinto was produce by Victor Torres for Chateau Camou and is still available. It is a blend of Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc and has 2 years in first use French oak with 11 years in the bottle. This vintage wine, along with all the other bottles, are stored in a vaulted room with perfectly controlled temperatures. If one walks in quietly, a profound living stillness is felt palatably. Stop and listen, you will not hear this elsewhere. Hundreds of bottles are artfully stacked in impressive sections, each with its own kind. Many of the “Gran Vinos” have been held 20 years and can be purchased. What is most outstanding in this experience is that along with the heart, passion and relationship with nature is the need for utter patience, a lost art in the 21st century, but alive and well in the Guadalupe Valley. Chateau Camou offers the world travelers and wine buffs the finest vintage wines, while at the same time beckoning the novice to explore the unique Umbral wines.