Mexico's wine country should be on every wine lover's travel list

Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s premier wine country is in the midst of a cultural revival driven by native talent  

WORDS Words Jackie Bryant
April 2018
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“If you like to be a little louder, a little more like family, I’ll serve you family-style,” says David Castro Hussong, executive chef at Fauna, a high-end restaurant in Baja California. Castro has noticed that my friends and I can’t stop chatting long enough to decide between à la carte or a tasting menu. So, lit by flickering candles and lubricated by a crisp local chardonnay, we enjoy a succession of dishes that certainly wouldn’t have seen the light of day in my family.

We’re in Valle de Guadalupe, an arid, mountain-rimmed region about 70 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border and about 10 miles inland from the Pacific port of Ensenada. This is not a highly developed area—the roads are mostly unpaved and the signposts tend to be approximate—but it is in the midst of a cultural revival that is fast making it one of Baja’s hottest travel destinations, particularly among wine enthusiasts.

By now, the Valle’s status as a wine-producing region is well known. In fact, while much has been made of the area’s spate of fantastic new wineries in recent years, they’ve been cultivating grapes here for centuries. It’s widely accepted that the current flourish began in 1988, when the winery Monte Xanic opened. Others followed, including commercial producers like L.A. Cetto, and boutique outfits, often manned by winemakers from Italy and France. Today there are over 150 wineries in Valle de Guadalupe, dozens of which did not exist a decade ago. And with the wine has come a host of new restaurants and hotels. The big difference now is that the boom is being driven not by outsiders, but by a pool of talented locals who, having honed their skills abroad, are returning to the area.

 “I always had it in my mind to come home,” says the 27-year-old Castro, whose résumé includes stints at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, Cala in San Francisco and Noma in Copenhagen. Unlike other parts of Mexico, Baja California doesn’t have an ancient food culture, which caused many travelers to ignore the peninsula until recently. “Mexico has three sections: north, central and south, all with totally different mindsets, economies, styles of food,” says Castro. “Baja is the fourth, completely separate. It’s almost an island, surrounded by water except for a little strip of land. We’re on our own here. There’s a sense of freedom: to cook, to make wine, to do whatever you want. There are no rules at all.”
 

Castro preparing grilled parsnips at Fauna

Fauna is the flagship fine dining restaurant of Bruma, a recently completed hotel and winery that embraces the trend of high design in wine regions all over the world. It was winemaker Hugo D’Acosta, who founded a distinguished winemaking school in the Valle in addition to his labels, who alerted Fauna’s Mexico City- and Monterrey-based owners to Castro’s talents. The partners approached the chef with an offer, and once he saw the stunning property—which was designed by D’Acosta’s brother, Alejandro—he knew to take it seriously.

The restaurant opened in 2017 and is a compelling addition to the list of “must eat” venues in the area. Many of the more established eateries serve Mediterranean-style food—something that has earned Baja California’s cuisine the nickname of “Baja-Med.”

“My style has nothing to do with Baja-Med, though I have nothing against it,” Castro says. “I don’t use olives. I cook Mexican dishes.” His menu has “a ton of tatemados,” he adds, referring to the live-fire cooking technique from Colima state, south of Puerto Vallarta, which calls for roasting and stewing meat and vegetables in their juices, producing intense flavors and a charred finish. Since he’s from Baja California, the menu also includes an array of fresh seafood unique to this part of the Pacific—chocolate clams, sea urchins, blood clams, spot prawns—as well as a variety of vegetables not commonly eaten elsewhere in Mexico, like beets and parsnips.

Fauna’s wine list is also 100-percent local, though Castro bucks convention, hand-picking each bottle. Often, this means a wine list filled with single bottles from different winemakers.

One name that makes frequent appearances on Fauna’s list is Lulú Martinez Ojeda (above), the consulting winemaker for Bruma, along with other local wineries such as Vena Cava. Her main gig is being the head winemaker for Bodegas Henri Lurton. If that name strikes you as more French than Mexican, you’re not mistaken. The newly minted winery is backed by the Lurton family of Margaux’s Château Brane-Cantenac, one of the oldest houses in Bordeaux. Martinez, too, is an Ensenada native who spent 15 years living in Bordeaux, where she studied enology and eventually landed a job at the storied Brane-Cantenac.

When the Lurtons decided they wanted to invest in a winery outside of France, they scouted locations in South America, South Africa, Spain and other countries. Martinez, whose father works in Baja’s wine industry, served as an informal consultant when the family first turned its gaze upon Mexico.

“I was excited that they wanted to invest here, but I know the realities of running a business in Mexico, so I told them everything that could go wrong,” Martinez says. “But I think they saw what I saw. That every time we returned, there were more wineries and restaurants opening. The Valle was quickly becoming a patchwork of different wines, philosophies, techniques and characters—and we knew that would only last a certain time. Henri [Lurton] is a keen analyst. One day, after driving around the Valle, he looked at me and said, ‘Alors on va?’, which means, ‘Then we will?’ in French.”

Bodegas Henri Lurton recently completed their winery in the heart of the Valle, surrounded by some of the area’s most lauded restaurants and vineyards, which are tucked down small dirt roads. According to critics and casual wine lovers alike, Martinez—who returned to the area in 2016—is now making some of the best wines in Mexico.

Like many winemakers here, Martinez enjoys a certain freedom of craft. More established winemaking regions such as Bordeaux, Rioja or Napa have regulations regarding geographic boundaries, grapes and techniques. Those rules don’t exist here. Martinez grows her fruit in Valle San Vicente, an agricultural valley just to the south. As for varietals, Spanish and southern French and Italian grapes are popular, owing to the Valle’s hot, dry days, cool nights and a fog that occasionally rolls in from the Pacific. Though regulation may occur down the road, for now, it’s no-holds-barred.

The Valle’s lack of rules continues to be attractive even to those who have helped to make it what it is today. Jair Téllez, who grew up 70 miles north, in Tijuana, opened Laja in 2001, a high-end restaurant down the dirt road from Martinez’s new winery, after a long career in the U.S., where he trained at The French Culinary Institute and worked at Daniel Boulud’s Manhattan restaurant Daniel.

The success of Laja, which occupies a coveted spot on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, allowed Téllez to open outposts in Mexico City, Vancouver and Tijuana. He and his brother, Noel, also launched an experimental natural wine label in 2015: Bichi, which means “naked” in a Sonoran dialect. The brothers grow grapes on their vineyard in Tecate, a city on the border, and in the Valle, and are focused on making wines with as little human intervention as possible. They work with relatively obscure grapes like misión and rosa del Peru, which were initially brought over by Spanish missionaries before regionally dying out.

“You have to understand, there was nothing here when I opened Laja,” Téllez says at his vineyard in Baja California. “It was my idea to make these crazy wines,” he adds, laughing and looking at his brother. Given the growing popularity of natural wines around the world, the idea may not have been so crazy after all. They’ve developed a cult following in the U.S. and Europe.
 

Tortellini with truffle at Laja

What Castro, Martinez and the Téllezes have in common, besides being from Baja, is their open-mindedness, entrepreneurialism and laser-like ability to identify what customers want. The Valle has enjoyed—or suffered, depending on who you ask—comparisons to Napa Valley. There is some legitimacy to the analogy, considering California and Baja California used to be part of the same country, and that both regions are characterized by a scrappy, do-it-yourself spirit. It’s also true that well-heeled Mexicans and Americans flock here for wine country getaways.

But there are differences. While wineries in Napa are deciding whether or not to build car-charging stations, an ongoing argument in the Valle de Guadalupe revolves around whether or not to pave the roads. The area’s restaurants, rather than looking to Europe or the U.S., mostly feature local talent. And winemakers here are operating on their own terms, producing whatever they want for an open-minded audience.

Back at Castro’s family-style meal at Fauna, my friends and I consume a succession of large bowls brimming with bright flavors: blood clam aguachile; sautéed chocolate clam muscle in brown butter and lemon; sautéed octopus with domingo rojo beans; crunchy roasted lamb with chilhuacle. All are paired with wines made just a few hills away. The evening evolves into a sobremesa—the tradition of lingering long after the eating is done.

After dinner, we step onto the patio and into the chill desert night. And this, perhaps, is the only way to end an evening in Mexico’s wine country: to tumble into the star-speckled blackness, settle next to a roaring fire and make sure a bottle is never more than an arm’s length away. The wind shifts and smoke forces us to turn our heads toward the restaurant’s patio seating.

“Next time you’re here, it’s going to be completely different,” Castro tells me. Though he’s talking about outdoor furniture, I suspect he has much more than that in mind.
 

Where to Stay

Modern or Mediterranean? Plush or minimalist? The Valle has a range of small but style-rich hotels.

Encuentro Guadalupe

One of the Valle’s most famous landmarks, Encuentro Guadalupe—frequently referred to as the “pod hotel”—was designed by esteemed Tijuana architect Jorge Gracia. Twenty-two  futuristic cubes dot the hills above Highway 3—each an eco-pod that comes with a chiminea (bulb-shaped terra-cotta outdoor fireplace), small outdoor seating space and breathtaking views.

La Villa del Valle

Eileen and Phil Gregory, a British couple who decamped from Los Angeles after retiring from the entertainment industry, run this six-room, Tuscan-style bed-and-breakfast. They also own the on-site winery Vena Cava and restaurant Corazón de Tierra, which is on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Both were designed by local architect Alejandro D’Acosta.

Campera Hotel Burbuja

Set at the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe, this hotel is an eco-resort where guests can bed down in a luxury bubble, offering unparalleled views of the Valle’s starry night sky.
 

Wine + Design

The Valle’s gustatory delights pair with bold architecture.

Bruma

Alejandro D’Acosta and Claudia Turrent designed the Valle’s newest crown jewel: a hotel, winery and restaurant outfitted with reclaimed metal and wood, which blends artfully with the desert landscape.

Decantos Vinícola

Ensenada architect Juan Ruíz designed this futuristic winery tasting room with wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, black iron buttresses and views of the sprawling valley below. 

Pancracia

This new restaurant at the Agua de Vid complex focused around winemaking has an entire wall open to the outdoors, while shipping containers on the property also house an art gallery.

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