A Journey Through Wine Country: ''Baja''

Matthew Kirk


When you think of a ''traditional'' Mexican beverage, then for most Tequila or the variety of tropical cocktails, sipped lazily at swim-up bars by sun-drenched vacationers, spring to mind. However unbeknownst to most, Mexico is also becoming a serious player in the prestigious world of winemaking with, so far, very impressive results.

Los CabosVineyards, which in recent years have had numerous accolades bestowed upon them, lazily wind through the northern Baja countryside, the relatively virgin soil producing a grape reminiscent of a Tuscany of old. On a trip to Baja's wine region, you may have the chance not only to discover the many wine-related festivals, but also perhaps a new fruity award winning vintage as well.

For most, the veritable 'boom' in Mexico'swine production would be considered a new phenomenon. However, you may be surprised to know that the art of winemaking in Mexico dates way back to the time of the Spanish conquest, with the oldest winery in all the Americas, Casa Madera, located in Coahuila state and dating back to 1597.

Los CabosUnfortunately theproduction of wine in Mexico was to be a short-lived venture. The Spanish Crown originally surprised and happy with incredible quality of the grapes the New World wineries were producing later decided, around the middle of the 17th Century, that perhaps they were doing a little to well! Fearing the chance of competition, the production of wine and the planting of grapevines was banned and brought to a resounding halt. However a few Spanish missionaries refused to abide by these new rules and continued to produce wine, albeit on very small and inconsequential scale.

Los CabosIt needs to be mentioned that only a few places in the world have the kind of conditions needed to growpremium wine grapes and it just so happens that the Guadalupe Valley in northern Baja is one of these areas. The soil is sandy yet fertile and the climate is not unlike the Rhone Valley in France or California's stunning Napa Valley. So it comes as no surprise that when the Dominican priests began winemaking in 1834, at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, premium grapes and thus delectable full bodied wine were the fruits of their labor.

Los CabosHowever, enough about the history of the grape, what we all really want to know is where, when and how can we sample these full flavored Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots or excite our palates with a refreshingly lively Chenin Blanc. Well, just a mere 70 mile dusty drive south of the U.S border will put you right in the heart of Baja's wine country where you can explore the many traditional wineries. Bodega Santo Tomas should not be missed off your route, a glass or two of the Santo Tomas Reserva Unico is highly recommended here. However, if you are looking for something a little more exclusive and you are prepared to pay the price, then the discreet vineyard of Casa de Piedra produces many say the best reds and whites in Mexico!

There are many morewineries of note nestled in amongst the rolling northern Baja countryside, and there is one more I would like to mention. Monte Xanic is less than 20 years old, but many say is responsible for putting Mexico on the proverbial ''winemaking'' map. With an illustrious array of highly acclaimed awards and three outstanding lines, Calixa, Monte Xanic and the Gran Ricardo which has a limited production of 1,500 Magnums, it would be a shame not to stop by!

Los CabosThere are two major festivals in Baja celebrating the illustrious heritage and deep rooted culture of wine. The first and oldest is held in the town of Ensenada, called ''Fiestas de la Vendimia'', or The Vintage Festival. The streets fill with people, the music from live bands floats through the air blending with the aromas of gourmet cuisine, the wineries open their doors to the public and of course the wine flows freely!

And for all the vacationers in Cabo, there is now the International Wine Festival, held in the middle of January. It comprises four fun-filled days of culinary creations, seminars, music and dance and over 100 delectable wines to sample from the region's most famous wineries. Just another great excuse to escape the cold and head down to Baja for the warm winter sun and a few glasses of ? full bodied vintage Mexican wine.

Visit Baja and discover, learn and most importantly savor the flavor of a new, exciting and lesser known Mexican tradition...