Wines on the Baja Peninsula
When you talk to someone about Mexican wine, in the off chance that someone is actually familiar with it, it is most likely Baja California that will be mentioned. Different sources give different numbers in terms of its proportion of national production, ranging between 70% and 90%, but what is important is that the large majority of national wine production takes place in the state, with over 100 individual producers, if not 150. However, it is interesting to note that Baja California is not Mexico’s main grape producer; that would be Sonora, where over 60% of the country’s grapes are produced, although production in that state is almost exclusively geared towards table grapes and other grape products. On the other hand, Baja California, while still producing other grape products, mainly produces grapes for wine production, with almost 3,000 ha dedicated to wine compared to less than 900 for both table grapes and raisins combined.
In this sense, wine production has become a very important value-added activity in the state, providing important earnings that go beyond the simple agricultural production of grapes. In addition, many wines produced here have won international awards, and the proximity of the region to important Californian wine producing regions has given it contact that has resulted in the sharing of knowledge allowing Mexican wine producers to hone their techniques, as well as tourism potential brought about through its general proximity to southern wine producing regions in California. Overall, the industry is thriving, in particular in terms of premium wine production, although it will have multiple challenges in terms of sustainability to face in the future given pressure on resources, including water in particular, as well as increasing development and populations.
Climate and Geography
Baja California is the northernmost of the two states that make up the Baja Peninsula, which is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and Sea of Cortez to the east. The vineyards in Baja California are strongly concentrated in its northernmost portion. The peninsula is crossed by several mountain ranges that generally run from the north to the south, dividing it into two portions: the western portion, with a temperature moderated by the presence of the Pacific Ocean, and the eastern portion, with tendencies for higher temperatures due to the heating effect of the Sea of Cortez. Water resources in the area originate in the mountains, and the high degree of minerality and salinity of the soils in these mountains is transmitted to wine growing areas through their irrigation practices as well as their soil, which often adds a characteristic salinity to wines, which can either be considered to be an asset or a hindrance depending on the wine in question and how this aspect fits into the overall picture.
As for its climate, while the climate and conditions vary from one region to another, especially considering that Baja California is a very large state, the climate in its wine-producing regions is generally Mediterranean, with hot summers and mild winters, with the majority of rainfall occurring during the winter. This rainfall is quite limited in certain areas, hence the need for irrigation from mountain springs. The area is close to the sea, with most wine regions being located between 30-50 km from the ocean, causing these areas to experience the cooling effect of morning fog characteristic of certain parts of the Napa Valley. This allows for a cooling effect and a longer growing season, especially considering that the area is warm to hot, and doesn’t suffer from a lack of sun.
Like with viticulture in most parts of Mexico, the history of winemaking in Baja California is related to the travels of monks promoting Christianity in the New World, and in this case, their travels up the Baja Peninsula. The first Mission on the peninsula was established by Jesuit father Juan de Ugarte, who brought grapevines upon founding the Misión de Loreto in 1697, in what is now modern day Baja California Sur. Missions further to the north followed, including the Misión de San Vicente Ferrer (1780), the Misión Santo Tomás de Aquino (1791) and later the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte (1834) in the regions with the same names.
While grapes and most likely wine were produced at these sites, the first establishment dedicated to making wine in the state was Bodegas Santo Tomás, founded in 1888. Later, Russian immigration to the Valle de Guadalupe at the beginning of the 1900s also led to other family vineyards being set up, which gained economic power when the United States instituted prohibition in 1920, benefiting from cross-border tourism directed at alcohol consumption. However, this boom was attenuated when this law was repealed in the 1930s, although some companies were able to still consolidate themselves during this period and survive until today, such as L.A. Cetto.
In the 1970s, due to the demand for grapes and wine, there was an explosion in the area in terms of grape production as in other parts of Mexico, but which came to an end with the financial crisis in the 80s and the removal of import tariffs with the GATT, which made it very difficult for Mexican wines to compete with cheaper imported wines, especially given the lack of financial resources immediately available to the industry. During this time, the amount of hectares planted with grapevines decreased significantly. However, at the beginning of the 1990s in particular, following the lead of small-scale wine producers such as Monte Xanic, a new Mexican wine revolution took place, this time not focusing on volume of production but rather on quality of production, with the institution of a large number of small-scale boutique wineries.
This trend toward boutique wineries continues, and currently, the large majority of the producers in Baja California are small or medium-sized companies that must create a product with a high added-value to be able to compete on an international brand-dominated market. This is the opposite of what most people would expect when thinking about Mexican wine, but is nonetheless the case. However, these boutique wineries do not make up the majority of production volume, taking into account the vast size of the three main companies in the state: L.A. Cetto, Pedro Domecq and (to a lesser extent) Santo Tomás (and even Casa Magoni these days).
Nonetheless, there is a proliferation of small producers, who might produce just one signature wine or several of them, often focused on a premium product directed at the national market. Nonetheless, Mexican wines are continuing to win more international recognition, which means that the boutique wineries in this area may have a great deal of future potential for the export of their wine, considering that national consumption has nothing to do with a national taste for Mexican wine and everything to do with the lack of international media exposure. However, non-competitive prices due to taxation and the cost of labor and equipment remain significant setbacks to be overcome.
While quantities in terms of hectares planted are still a fraction of what they were during the 1970s, the fact that the wine industry in Baja California today focuses on added-value makes it a much more viable industry, especially faced with the scarcity of water resources, which will be an important limiting factor on further development. While only a fraction of the potential land in the area is cultivated, limited water resources may make it difficult to extend the hectares of vineyards, making the production of high-quality products an essential aspect in the survival of the industry in a context in which mass production might not be the most practical nor most profitable in the future.
The state of Baja California has multiple wine producing regions, many of which have similar characteristics, although which vary in terms of climate and altitude, and especially in terms of proximity to the cooling effect of the ocean. The main regions in the state are the Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Santo Tomás, Valle de San Vicente Ferrer, Valle de Ojos Negros and Valle de la Grulla, all of which are located in the municipality of Ensenada. Also in the municipality is the region of El Tigre, on a highway that branches off from that leading into the Valle de Guadalupe. Other less well-known regions in the state include areas in the municipality of Tecate, such as the Valle de las Palmas and Valle de Tanamá, as well as minor production areas in the municipalities of Tijuana and Mexicali, although the latter is primarily dedicated to the cultivation of table grapes and raisins.
Valle de Guadalupe
Out of the regions that produce wine in the state of Baja California, the most well-known and iconic of these is the Valle de Guadalupe (also sometimes known as the Valle de Calafia). In the Valle de Guadalupe, there are a large number of wine producers, the large majority of which are small to medium scale enterprises. The valley has a total planted surface of approximately 1,560 hectares of grapes the large majority of which goes to wine production, although a small percentage (less than 10%) is dedicated to table grapes and raisin production. It is worth noting that many vineyards have their retail storefronts in this region along the wine tourism route, but that many of their actual productive vineyards are to the south, in the Valle de la Grulla or in San Vicente. The altitude in this area ranges between 230 and 400 m, and the valley is located to the northeast of Ensenada, approximately 30 km from the ocean. It has an average annual precipitation of 309 mm, occurring during winter months, whereas summer temperatures are hot and dry, at times excessively so.
San Antonio/El Porvenir/Francisco Zarco
While some producers choose to label wines as being from San Antonio de las Minas or from the Valle de San Antonio de las Minas, the reality is that this is a municipal entity that is geographically-speaking, within the Valle de Guadalupe, and is not a valley in itself.
The same goes for Francisco Zarco and Ejido El Porvenir, which are municipal entities within the Valle de Guadalupe but which may at times appear on labels at the election of producers. These terms are not really meaningful when describing wines from the region, as there isn’t data to support dividing up the Valle de Guadalupe along what is essentially municipal lines.
This lack of regulation of labeling terms and the division of wine producing areas is a common source of confusion in Mexico.
Valle de San Vicente
Number two in grape production in the state is the Valle de San Vicente Ferrer (or just Valle de San Vicente), which is the southernmost significant wine producing region in the state, located to the south of the Valle de Santo Tomas along the ancient wine route. Many producers whose storefronts are in the Valle de Guadalupe actually have all or a significant portion of their vineyards here. This area has a total of approximately 1,150 hectares of grapes planted, although it is important to note that this region is also a significant producer of non-wine grapes, which constitute approximately 30% of its production. It has an average altitude of between 135 and 150 m, with 215.2 mm of average annual rainfall. Also alongside this region is the population of Llano Colorado, and sometimes the two geographical terms are used to indicate the origin of wines produced in the area.
Valle de Santo Tomás
Third in terms of grape production in the state but important in terms of reputation is the Valle de Santo Tomás. This region is home to the first wine producer in the area, Santo Tomás (although they also have facilities in the Valle de Guadalupe), which was founded in 1888 at the Misión de Santo Tomas. While the valley only has approximately 230 ha planted, all of these are for wine production, and in general, this region benefits from the historical significance of Bodegas Santo Tomás. The altitude of the valley ranges between 140 and 170 m and has an average annual precipitation of 234.3 mm.
Valle de la Grulla (Ejido Uruapan)
The region surrounding Ejido Urupan/Valle de la Grulla is much less well-known than other regions, and lies just slightly to the north of the Valle de Santo Tomás along the ancient wine route. Nonetheless, its grape production, in addition to being vinified by producers on-site, is also commonly sold to winemakers in the Valle de Guadalupe, meaning that we might be drinking more wine from Valle de la Grulla than we think. Producers of note in this region include MD Vinos, Santo Domingo and Vinos Aldo César Palafox. This region has 115 ha of vines planted, all of which is dedicated to wine. It has a slightly higher average annual precipitation at 312 mm, and a very slightly lower temperature, which has been significant in preserving crops against damages in the event of excessively high summer temperatures, which has been a problem in the past in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Ojos Negros, also known as the Valle de San Rafael, although small in terms of volume with only approximately 51 ha of grape vines planted, is benefiting from greater recognition in terms of reputation due to positive publicity surrounding its wine production. This is the highest wine production region in terms of altitude in the state at 750 m, which despite being significantly higher than neighboring regions, is still far behind regions in central Mexico which commonly surpass 1,500 or even 2,000 m. It has an average annual precipitation of 278 mm. Even though it only produces a small amount of grapes, a certain portion of this is still dedicated to grape production for purposes other than wine. The first wine producer established in this valley was Bodegas San Rafael, which focuses on the production of premium wine. It is important to note that the lower density in this area means that there may be more potential for development due to less stress on resources, and water resources in particular.
Outside of the well-known wine producing regions, in the municipality of Tecate, there are a few wine producers working in an area that generally isn’t well-known for wine production. In the Valle de Tanamá to the south of Tecate lies Vinos Tanamá, which works with several varieties of red and white grapes. Also within the municipality of Tecate is the Valle de Las Palmas, in which the Vinícola Don Juan, and Vinos Bichi are located, as well as the Valle de San Valentín, home to Casa Veramendi. In total, in this municipality, there is approximately 36 ha of production, all of which goes toward wine production. Altitudes vary from approximately 270 m in the Valle de las Palmas to between 500 and 700 m closer to Tecate, and in general, compared with other regions in the state, this area is somewhat farther inland than the Valle de Guadalupe.
Note: All statistics regarding hectares planted and altitudes in specific sub-regions are from OEIDRUS.
By Raquel Boucher and Omar Torres
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