As wine tourism gradually resumed in 2022, an overlooked 600-year-old wine country somehow became newsworthy. Several travel articles independently announced the discovery of ‘the next Napa Valley’. They zoomed in on one surprising region, Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley. Located about 100 km south of the US border, or just over an hour’s drive from San Diego, Guadalupe’s wine route has come alive with new wineries, new resorts, boutique hotels and trendy restaurants.
And as a recent visitor to Guadalupe, I can confirm it is indeed newsworthy. No longer flying under the radar, Guadalupe secured international recognition in late 2022 by hosting the 43rd annual World Congress of Vine and Wine. Held in Ensenada, the event was attended by over 2,500 representatives from the 48 member countries of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). The hot topics on the agenda were climate change, water usage and vine identity.
Then, another news story featured the San Francisco restaurant and wine bar Cantina Los Mayas, when it announced it will offer Mexican wines exclusively. Yes, in Napa’s backyard!
These news items are not just the flavour of the week. Other than its latitude and unusual dry climate, what sets Guadalupe apart is that it may be the first wine region to make tourism the central focus of a business plan. With only 25 wineries existing before 2005, Guadalupe is now home to close to 150 wineries, 100 restaurants, 92 hotels and boutiques, and 12 taco stands. There also are a couple of glamping sites and numerous food trucks located at wineries.
But it will be wines that ultimately attract new visitors, returning tourists, and follow-up stories. Dealing with the unusual growing conditions, winemakers are coming up with a remarkable range of successes. With older vineyards planted to Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Cabernet, the Valley now cultivates over 70 varieties, with newer plantings led by Italian, Spanish and Rhône grapes. To add to the mix there are some 60-year-old Grenache plantings established by Russian immigrants. Then there’s Nebbiolo, said to be introduced in the 1940s but the identity tags were lost. Guadalupe Nebbiolo, as a blending component or on its own, is a special wine with qualities unique to the region.
Most wines are blends of old and new vines and many combinations are not found elsewhere such as Chardonnay blended with Chenin Blanc, Viognier or Fiano. Or how about a wine that is 60% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Nebbiolo? More unusual combinations are likely to come through the many ongoing experiments with different varieties. Camillo Magoni, the ‘Robert Mondavi of Guadalupe’, who is forever experimenting with grapes and clones, is said to now have over 100 varieties in his four-hectare experimental vineyard. His winery bottles some of these experiments, the most recent being 260 bottles of Periquita, a Portuguese grape.
The Founders Pre-2005
In 2005, there was a solid core of wineries beginning with the big volume guys: LA Cetto, Santo Tomás and Domecq. Monte Xanic, which claims to be the first boutique winery, opened for business in 1989. Then in 1997 Tru Miller from the Netherlands started a winery that is also a horse ranch and six-bedroom resort, Adobe Guadalupe. Soon, other local families followed her lead and developed a winery and lodging such as Malagón and El Cielo.
She remains one of the key people today and it was interesting to learn that Guadalupe has several female winemakers along with a couple of female-owned wineries. Another much referenced personality is ‘Lulú’ Martínez Ojeda who worked in Bordeaux at Brane-Cantenac for 10 years, before returning to her native Ensenada to start Bodegas Henri Lurton. She is now a winemaker and partner at Bruma, a new winery with a B&B and award-winning restaurant.
Today, the Valley’s wineries balance an international cast of characters and local families. Many of the new wineries are locally owned. That door opened in 2004 when Hugo D’Acosta who studied at Montpellier in France and the Agrarian University of Turin in Italy, organized La Escuelita, a school teaching local farmers and families the fundamentals of winemaking and cellar procedures. The school also functioned as a cooperative, providing the necessary equipment to growers and future winemakers to make wine.
The New Generation
As new wineries began settling in from 2005 onwards, most were started by home winemakers, by cellar workers from one of the big wineries or by career changers. I am very much reminded of Napa Valley waking up in the early 1970s.
With the focus on the tourist market, the annual production of these Guadalupe newbies is generally under 7,500 cases. Then, typically, a winery features somewhere between 12 to 24 wines. Most have attractive tasting areas that offer food as well as wine.
So far, the approach seems to be working very well. The main concern shared by many is that the region must guard against growing too fast. These concerns seem genuine since the key to the region’s success is being a getaway destination. Wineries like El Cielo, Monte Xanic and Adobe Guadalupe have paved the way and in an ironic way… in that they have placed Guadalupe on the radar by not paving the roads, by selling their natural beauty. And, of course, the special wines.
Based upon my visit, I’ve singled out five wineries that have what it takes to sustain the momentum and help secure Guadalupe’s reputation as a unique wine region:
Now in the hands of the second generation, Magoni recently opened a beautiful new tasting room located, like so many others, along a dusty, bumpy dirt road. Camillo Magoni made wines for Cetto and others before founding his own in 2013. The estate vineyard of 120 hectares is planted to over 100 varieties. I was impressed by all of Magoni wines, including the Viognier blended with Fiano, the 2020 Origin 43 blended red and the elegant 2020 Merlot-Malbec. The winery also houses a wine library and produces its own olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Perched on a steep hillside overlooking the valley, this winery farms 38 hectares and the property includes a popular resort, Villa Montefiori. Montefiori is also a label for many wines while the high-end Paoloni line is made from older vines. Paoloni offers a rich, unusual Sangiovese rosé and a fresh lively Chardonnay. But the reds are among the most impressive, and most unusual. The 2020 Ross del Valle made from 100% Montepulciano is amazingly concentrated. Even more exciting was the 2019 Nebbiolo, a dark-coloured, deeply flavoured version, aged for 15 months in French oak. The house speciality is Nero d’Avola, its the 2018 aged 12 months in oak is stunning for its depth and layers of flavour. A dare-to-be-different winery that will have much to say about Guadalupe’s future.
Nestled up against a steep rocky hillside and enjoying panoramic views, Las Nubes began in 2008 and now farms 19 hectares. Among the dozen wines produced, Jaak is the name for the winery’s popular rosé. The full-flavoured 2020 was made from 50% Grenache, 40% Carignan and 10% Zinfandel. Kuiiy is the name of its lively and typical white wine that combines 70% Sauvignon and 30% Chardonnay. Among its red wines, the 2019 barrel (barricas) selection is aged six months in oak and showcases the elegant, nuanced style possible in Guadalupe.
Whether it was sheer luck or fate, my visit to Casta was truly eye-opening. Opened in 2010, Casta is an authentic mom-and-pop family winery with Sergio Castañeda as owner and winemaker and Claudia, his wife, as hospitality director. With an annual output of 4,500 cases, Casta makes 12 wines, 10 red. The 2018 Domina, a 100% Merlot exudes charm in an elegant style, and the 2019 Cirio, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre blend is big with multi-layered flavours. Casta Tinta, a Bordeaux blend, could easily be mistaken for a young Médoc. Another amazing accomplishment, the 2020 Syrah is heavenly and stylishly refined for a young Syrah. Clearly, the winemaking shows a subtle use of small oak and tannin management that makes this one a genuine superstar.
Emevé was started by Mario Villarreal, a highly successful businessman living in Guadalupe. He slowly ventured into winemaking. In 2004, He planted a small vineyard and began taking wine courses. He was the typical home winemaker through 2007, but he was hooked and expanded the vineyard near his home and made his first commercial wine in 2008. Today, the winery draws from 18 hectares and produces around 5,000 cases a year. In addition to a lovely Rose of Cabernet, Emevé is best known for its proprietary blends. Isabella brings together Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier in a bright, full-bodied style. There’s a red Bordeaux named Los Nietos and another red blend, Armonia de Tintos, that adds a dollop of Shiraz. And just for a little variation there’s a 100% Shiraz that’s bottle aged for five years before its release.
Yes, Guadalupe is an exciting and newsworthy wine region.
Norm Roby has been writing about the California wine scene for over 30 years. From Vintage Magazine he moved to The Wine Spectator with his ‘Inside California Wine’ column; he then became the California Correspondent for Decanter magazine.