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Saturday, September 10, 2005 | The smell of fermenting and freshly harvested grapes fills my nose as I follow the guide into the main fermenting room of the Monte Xanic winery near Ensenada, Baja California Norte.
Soporific and dangerous-smelling, the vapors rising from the barrels and stainless steel tanks mix with the buzz of thousands of bees and vibrate around my head, making my knees weak and my head fuzzy. I haven’t even had a drink yet.
Monte Xanic is one of several wineries that have established themselves along the Guadeloupe Valley, a narrow chimney of land that slices through the Sierra Blanca Mountains east of Ensenada.
The area has been home to wineries since the 18th century, when Jesuit missionaries brought grape cuttings to the Baja Peninsula.
The area now has approximately 20,000 acres of vineyards and produces 1,450,000 cases annually, nearly 90 percent of Mexico’s total wine production, according to Dominic Colangelo, a wine educator at Mira Costa College who has been studying wine for 43 years and runs regular tours to Baja’s wine country.
Today, a number of brands with their roots in the salty soil of the valley vie for a share of Mexico’s minimal domestic wine buyers market.
They have a tough sell on their hands.
Hans Backhoff, Monte Xanic’s winemaker, said there are a number of barriers that Mexican vintners face when trying to sell their wares both at home and abroad.
Within Mexico, winemakers like Backhoff are faced with a population that is largely uneducated on the delights of wine tasting and drinking. Backhoff said Mexico is a country where tradition dies hard. Culture, for much of the Mexican population, means indigenous culture. Drinking alcohol, if it is a part of the culture at all, is more likely to mean drinking beer or tequila.
“It is difficult, definitely,” said Backhoff. “Because in Mexico there is not a custom for people to drink wine. Wine is drunk basically only in celebrations and weddings and things like that.”
Monte Xanic spokeswoman Karola Saenger said the resulting challenge for the winery is persuading the native population. The winery’s production manager, Israel Zenteno Ruíz, agrees.
“Right now, it is kinda hard breaking the barrier,” he said. “(We have to) educate the wine culture into Mexicans.”
There’s a lot to learn.
Northern Baja falls into the southern portion of what is known as the global “wine belt.” Wine belts in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres demarcate latitudes within which wine can be grown. Outside these areas, the climate is either too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. The Guadeloupe Valley, while at the southern fringe of the Northern Hemisphere belt, is perfectly suited for growing grapes, according to Backhoff.
He said cool night breezes puff off the Pacific to enshroud the valley’s grapes in a cooling dew, “stressing” them so that fewer, smaller grapes grow on each vine.
Backhoff said this process of stressing the fruit enhances the complexity of the flavor that ultimately results from the berries. Smaller grapes mean greater surface area – or skin – compared to grape flesh. That translates to more intense flavors, as much of a wine’s flavor comes from the skins of the berries used to make it.
Colangelo said that factors like climate, geology, soil structure and the availability of water are just the start of a winemaker’s voyage to creating a drinkable vintage.
Chief among the early decisions a winemaker must make is the selection of grape varietals that will respond well to a region. According to Colangelo, growers in Northern Baja have concentrated on growing grapes from the Rhone district of France, such as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Viognier. Colangelo said there is also a lot of Chardonnay and Cabernet being grown in the area.
At Monte Xanic, Cabernet is king. The winery makes 14 different wines, which Backhoff said is quite unusual for such a modestly sized company. In addition to the fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, the winery also mixes things up with a couple of Chenin Blanc blends that Backhoff said have proved very successful for the company.
Colangelo said that despite some wonderful wines being produced in Baja, Mexico still does not export much wine abroad. That’s partly because of trade restrictions, he said, which make it difficult for importers to bring alcohol across the border. The main reason why Mexican wine doesn’t fare well in the United States, he said, is image. Most people simply never open a bottle of Mexican wine, he said. If they did, they night be in for a surprise.
“Once people start tasting the wines, they’re going to like them,” said Colangelo. “And I think their pricing is quite good, which would be advantageous.”
Backhoff agreed that producing excellent wine isn’t enough. In order for Northern Baja to make its name as a legitimate wine-producing region, he said, it needs to be promoted as such. That means bringing people to the area to try the wines, but it also means breaking down Mexico’s stereotype abroad as a beer-swilling, tequila-shooting country.
Backhoff said that’s starting to happen, and is evidenced by a recent spurt in the number of new wineries setting up in the Guadeloupe Valley.
“Now there’s a kind of fever and everybody’s started making wine. You have every year, five, six, seven small producers popping up everywhere,” said Backhoff. “That’s important because that shows how an area blooms, how an area which has a vocation for wines starts waking up and developing.”
Sitting with Saenger and Zenteno Ruíz on a recent Monday afternoon, enjoying a refreshing bottle of Grenache Rosé alongside a platter of French cheese, paté and freshly-baked bread, it’s clear why the area’s becoming so popular not just with winemakers but with tourists, too.
It’s easy to believe that I am relaxing inside the warehouse of a chateaux in Bordeaux, France or lolling in an Azienda in the Veneto, Italy.
It is hard to picture the slamming of tequila shots in nearby Ensenada bars or the neophyte drinking of Rosarito Beach, just an hour’s drive away.
Looking out of the winery’s main warehouse across acres of groomed vineyards capped by an impossibly blue sky, the scene is one of humid tranquility. A lake on the grounds of the winery sits below the main cellar, a boxy above-ground affair that was dynamited right out of the granite hillside.
Inside the cellar sit rows and rows of handmade French oak barrels waiting to be filled with this year’s vintage. The walls are roughly hewn rock, moist with condensation. Saenger explains that every wine produced at the winery is aged for at least 18 months, some in the oak barrels in the main cellar and others in stainless steel tanks above it in the winemaking warehouse.
Colangelo described Monte Xanic’s wines as “some of the best” to come out of the Guadeloupe Valley. He said their Cabernet Sauvignon is their most notable production. However, he said the area has a number of other excellent wineries that are only now starting to really mature and come into their own.
The region recently improved its image as a legitimate tourist center. Though the road to many of the wineries ends a few feet off the main highway – from then on it’s a dirt road – access to the various businesses is not a challenge for most people reasonably acquainted with travel to Baja. Each winery is signposted by an easily spotted blue sign saying “Ruta de Vino” and the area is dotted with restaurants and small hotels.
“(The area is) gaining more importance year by year,” said Viviana Ibañez, bi-national affairs manager for the San Diego Chamber of Commerce “because every year more wines are getting medals worldwide.”
Ibañez said that the Fiestas de la Vendima, annual festivals held every August at many of the wineries to celebrate the year’s harvest, have also done much to attract visitors to the valley.
The main road out to the wineries is Highway No. 3. This snakes its way east to Tecate from the main toll road, Highway No. 1, which runs all the way from the border at San Ysidro to Ensenada.
I drove to Monte Xanic, which is right in the middle of the area, in an hour and a half from the border. It’s a beautiful drive past sheer cliffs, coastal villages and towns and through the beautiful hills of the wine country.
Anyone not keen on making the trip on their own can contact Dominic Colangelo, who arranges regular daily tours of the region from San Diego. He can be contacted at (619) 607-6122.
Please contact Will Carless directly at