As the summer draws to a close and stories of adventures from friends and family come pouring in, I've been captivated by the tales of those who explored the Baja Peninsula. While the allure of coastal relaxation was a common theme in these journeys, what intrigued me most was the unexpected discovery of locally-crafted wines—a subject I admittedly knew little about.
I've had occasional opportunities to sample wines from Mexico, but I've yet to venture into the heart of their wine-producing regions. Winemaking in Mexico is far from a recent development. In fact, the country's grape-growing tradition stretches back over 400 years, tracing its roots to the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century. The story of Mexican winemaking has witnessed ebbs and flows over the centuries, with Spanish missionaries playing a pivotal role by introducing Old World grape varieties that laid the foundation for the establishment of today's modern wine industry.
Over time, these initial plantings evolved into a winegrowing legacy that has left its mark from the southern expanses of Chile and Argentina to the northern landscapes of Canada. In Mexico, this legacy has flourished across regions that span the coastal highlands of Baja California to the rolling hills and valleys of Sonora, Coahuila, Guanajuato, and Queretaro. Rooted in the rich tapestry of Mexican culture, the wine industry is experiencing steady growth. As of 2022, the country boasts approximately 350 wineries, with vineyard plantings covering nearly 108,000 acres—an impressive 60% increase since 2020. Prominent grape varieties cultivated include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard. Despite its historical significance and promising trajectory, Mexican wine remains a hidden treasure within the broader landscape of the New World's wines.
At the forefront of Mexican wine production and recognition stands the Baja Peninsula. This picturesque Pacific-coastal area has notably given rise to two prominent winegrowing regions: the Valle de Guadalupe and the Valle de Calafia. (A few emerging sub-regions are also beginning to make their mark.) The Valle de Guadalupe, situated about 20 miles inland from the Pacific coast around Ensenada, is perhaps the most renowned. Its diverse range of soils, from clay loam to calcareous and granite-alluvial deposits, has played a significant role in its viticultural triumph. The region's hot Mediterranean climate, tempered by refreshing coastal breezes, provides an environment conducive to various grape types, including Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Among its 100-plus wineries, Casa de Piedra, Monte Xanic, and Hugo D'Acosta have earned widespread recognition.
The Valle de Calafia, located in Baja California Sur near La Paz on the Sea of Cortés side, possesses remarkable untapped potential. Its distance from the Pacific coast contributes to a drier climate, and the region predominantly cultivates red grape varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. Up-and-coming producers such as Las Nubes, Vinos Calafia, and Cava Maciel are driving its growth.
While I generally understood these prominent regions, my recent encounter with wines from an emerging enclave just beyond the Valle de Guadalupe piqued my curiosity even further. Specifically, my attention was caught by a 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2020 white blend from Bodegas de Santo Tomás in the Valle Santo Tomás.
This smaller region, located around 40 miles south of the Valle de Guadalupe, enjoys a climate influenced by coastal breezes but leans more towards a continental and arid nature, receiving an average annual rainfall of approximately 10 inches. With elevations reaching 2,000 feet, the area experiences cooler temperatures ranging between 85°F and 65°F during the growing season. These milder growing conditions in the Valle Santo Tomás allow for extended ripening periods and balanced acidity in the grapes.
Founded in 1888 on the Dominican Misión de Santo Tomás de Aquino site, Bodegas de Santo Tomás is one of the oldest wineries in North America. The winery's original plantings trace back to the 1790s, and it continues to nurture old vines, some of which are over a century old.
Upon tasting these wines, shared with me by Nossa Imports, the distinctive character of this region became evident. The cooler growing conditions and diverse alluvial soils shine through in the Cabernet Sauvignon, which, despite its youth, showcases impressive restraint and velvety tannins—a trait possibly bolstered by its 12-month maturation in French oak barrels.
The white blend, however, was an even more delightful revelation. Comprising Chenin, French Colombard, and Chardonnay, this straightforward table wine exuded vibrant notes of yellow apple, honeycomb, and summer blossoms. While not overly extravagant, it boasts enough complexity to keep the senses engaged and paired splendidly with grilled chicken and an avocado-green Chile salsa verde.
Sometimes, a mere taste of something can awaken a deeper curiosity. While I acknowledge that two wines can't provide a comprehensive understanding of an entire sub-region, it's hard to ignore the synchronicity of hearing multiple accounts of Baja's exquisite wines and simultaneously being introduced to a small sample of the place. As the curtain falls on this summer's travel season, the prospect of exploring the Valle Santo Tomás before the end of 2023 has leapt to the forefront of my wine-traveling aspirations.