Not infrequently I hear complaints from visitors to the wine valley that Mexican wines are just too darned pricey. Not everyone can afford to drink $30 bottles of wine every day. For those of you who DO regularly purchase and enjoy Guadalupe Valley wines in the $20 – $50 + range, you may still find the purpose of this blog post edifying. I set out to discover, explore and report on the best value wines for $20 and under. For the purpose of this post I am not including the larger wineries who you will find represented at Sorianos, Calimax and Walmart. Rather I sought out the boutique and the artisanal; in short the small-production bodegas and backyard wine makers who proudly sell their wares.
Chef Mei was shivering. Her crimson shawl and slim white sweater were not enough to keep the Ensenada December chill off. Truly she had been a tad over-optimistic when she dressed for this blustery day. We are in Mexico where one expects sunshine and heat, wide-brimmed sombreros and spicy salsa. Yet it was cold and rainy and we were all chilled to the bone. Chef John Ash, Chef Mei Ibach, Liz Lynch and myself had embarked on a wine tasting tour of my beloved Valle de Guadalupe and were charmed by the rustic elegance of Tres Mujeres’ artisanal wines and the passionate innovations of Vinícola Torres Alegre. We’d braved some impressively rutted dirt roads, chattering and giggling all along, taking a few detours due to lack of signage and a lively dialogue that stole my attention. It was time to refuel (our personal engines, not the car) so off we went to our next destination, Corazón de Tierra. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt looking for this jewel of a restaurant. But the prize is well worth the hunt.
I adore giving tours of the wine valley where I live and work and introducing people to the distinctive wines from this region. So when my friend, Liz, from Punta Banda facebooked me and said she had some special friends visiting and wanted to take them winetasting, my mind started working immediately. We could take them here here and there! Or there there and here! Oh my, there are so many interesting wineries with AMAZING wines, it is hard to choose … Impossible to fit into one day. We could go rustic or we could go ultra sophisticated. We could stay on paved roads or really go off the beaten path. We could stick to a neighborhood or try to hit one in each mini-region of the valley. Some wineries have four or five wines– or dozens! — and a variety of tastings. Some wineries have only one or two wines (not to be overlooked!) Some wineries have very approachable, friendly winemakers and others not so much. When I discovered that Liz’s guests are both chefs, and world-renowned chefs at that, my challenge became even more discriminating.
We talked about water, salt, the seasons and the glitter of tartaric acid crystals sparkling like crushed starlight in his just-barreled 2012 Merlot. It was truly an elemental conversation with wine maker, Camilo Magoni, who has been crafting wine in Valle de Guadalupe since 1965.
I did excitedly entertain the notion of making raisin wine after not finding any more suitable grapes in the field for traditional fermentation. My friend, Roberta, sent me a link elucidating the history of raisin wine in ancient Greece. Further investigation led me to the study of “Straw” wines made in Italy, so named because the grapes were dried after harvest on straw mats. My heart sank as I realized it was not simply a matter of culling any odd variety of wrinkled raisins left in the vineyard and putting them through the fermentation methods I had so eagerly learned and applied this year. This highly prized and labor intensive wine-style has been utilized in a few regions since pre-Roman times and involves specific varietals and quite a bit of aging. These robust wines are not meant to be consumed young. They generally are aged for three to ten years in order to turn out these irresistible elixirs.
Against last week’s backdrop of frenzied 2012 Presidential campaigning I found myself rooting around in the dry, yellow-leafed vineyards of my tranquil Guadalupe Valley looking for grapes that hadn’t turned to raisins yet. While pundits of every stripe weighed in with their predictions for the election I was on the phone texting local growers and winemakers …. Does anyone still have fruit for sale? As the hopes and fears of the USA peaked in anticipation of election results I absorbed myself with the tasks that will ensure my livelihood for another year in beloved Mexico. I contacted everyone I could think of who might have a lead on late harvest grapes. In part I wanted to make up for the disappointment of my salty Barbera (more on that later) and try my hand again at carbonic maceration. In part I just wanted to keep the momentum going, I did not and still don’t want to stop. And in part, working at the very mundane tasks of daily survival was a necessary balance to the furious political rhetoric of the highly emotional and polarized race for Presidency.
I finished paying for and picked up my last barrel. It was the only new one I bought. The other three are reconditioned, heavy toast French oak barrels from local cooper, Bernandino Guttierez. I chose a heavy toast for the Grenache and Mourvédre because a heavy toast seals the grain for less wood extraction and more emphasis on fresh fruit which is the style I’m looking for in these wines. My long awaited new barrel came from Radoux, a well-known barrel making company in Napa Valley. I chose it for the Syrah which is the most tannic, robust wine I’m making by myself this year and will age for 9 to 12 months, though I think it already tastes pretty good. The barrel maker says of my choice: “Appalachian oak barrels have pepper and spice and a long, lemon cream finish.” Medium plus toast is described as “The apex of aromatic potential, adding pronounced vanilla, sweet chocolate, maple syrup and spice.” Wow. Right? Barrel shopping is like a trip to the pâtisserie and makes my mouth water!
The frenetic pace has slowed down. I brought the girls home and my pink boots have been retired for the time being. We were too spread out, with a couple of wines on one end of town and several others in the next pueblo down the way. I was getting pretty road weary with all the running back and forth, having joined the ranks of weary winemakers all over the valley. However, after all my wines had gone to press and some were ready for the barrel …. Well, it just seemed sensible to have them all in one place. Someday I’ll have my own little winemaking bodega and a cellar for storing barrels. But for now I’ve renamed my house “Casa mi Cava”. The wine, mama winemaker, the pink boots, and even the dogs are all resting. Whew.