Who knew that there was a Mexican wine region just south of San Diego, featuring 100 wineries!
It’s the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. I visited the area recently and sampled a remarkable winery. It was on a detour from a conference in San Diego, thanks to an old high school mate, Izi Adato who lives in the area and who drove us there.
We crossed the border at San Ysidro. Our ninety minute drive took us past an extensive wall complex separating the two countries, and the seaside resort of Rosarito Beach along a scenic coastal highway. We then turned inland along curvy mountain roads to reach the Valley.
Labeled by some as the Napa Valley of Mexico, Valle de Guadalupe is at a 1000 foot elevation and enjoys a Mediterranean microclimate, ideal for red varietals, especially ones that don’t fare well north of the border. It is a sparsely populated area, earthy and unrefined on first impression, the wineries widespread and mostly accessible via bumpy dirt roads.
The winery we visited however, Frida, was surprisingly sophisticated. It could easily have been in any wine country at our side of the border.
Featuring a spacious Frida Kahlo themed tasting room amid vineyards, the winery teemed with young, hip Mexicans and Gringos. Giant portraits of the famous artist were scattered all around.
At one end, a long, slick bar was backed by a painting of two giant eyes, Frida’s I presume. They gazed at the visitors behind young women tending the bar, their hairs adorned with flowers.
We tasted the creations of Enzio Marteloto, an Italian winemaker. The grapes are grown locally, in the Valley. The wines were well made, styled to please popular palates. As with the ambient décor, these were refined drinks, suitable for better known wine regions around the world. The prices were concordant, the tasting fee $20 per person.
Their Vino Blanco ($34), a Chardonnay, featured a classic toasty nose and buttery texture with hints of pears and limes in the upfront fruit. It had a slight bitterness before the finish and was not overoaked.
We next tasted their Diego, a creative mix of Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Carignan – again, all locally grown. All are red varietals present in the U.S. but rarely encountered, especially Nebbiolo, a native of Piedmont, Italy.
The wine had a peppery nose, an appropriately light structure, good acid and a long, somewhat oaky finish. It was clearly well made, but at $45 priced rather steep.
Off at a distant corner, in front of a slick American bar, two Dia de los Muertos skeletons, well dressed and with grizzly facades, invited visitors for photo ops.
At the bar, I stared at a basket of Frida dolls made of yarn while I waited for my hostess to pour the next sample. Latidos was a pure Syrah ($40), an appropriately dark wine with a smoky nose that carried hints of blackberry and cherry. The upfront fruit was clean and elegant. It was a high extraction, spicy wine with a long, lingering finish, a style popular with advocates of big fruit, big body and big alcohol.
Bathroom break. The bathrooms were equally elegant, the entrance featuring a floor to ceiling wall of multi colored flowers with the word Frida planted amidst in azure blue. Mirrors in the ceiling enhanced the décor to infinity.
The last tasting, Pasion de Frida was the winemaker’s special, a Gran Reserva, 100% Nebbiolo. If you expected something akin to a Barolo, the ultimate Italian expression of the grape, you’d be disappointed. The wine was huge, with a capital H! It had a big, ripe nose, massive extraction, fruit and alcohol that completely obscured the varietal. It had apparently spent 14 months in French oak barrels and two years in the bottle. I was not surprised by its price tag, $74 . The Valle de Guadalupe is clearly keeping up with the trends of the times.
Outside, Frida featured a spacious sitting area where the wines could be enjoyed with a Tabla de Quesos or Maridaje Ibérico, cheese platter or a combo of Iberian cheeses and charcuterie. Low lying picnic tables with rustic seats, bales of hay covered with blankets, overlooked vineyards all around. For those who weren’t satisfied with the huge reds, Frida offered a tasting of four different Tequilas. We declined.
All in all it was a captivating experience, enticing enough to plan future visits, and explore other wineries.