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How to match Mexican wine with Baja California Cuisine

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Tips to map the gastronomic evolution of Ensenada

The vertiginous takeoff of Valle de Guadalupe can't be explained without the impetuous evolution of winemaking in Ensenada. The so-called "new world wines" broke with ancestral traditions and reframed techniques, as science explained its microbiology and proposed new tools and ways to manipulate wine making processes. The wines of Ensenada acquire a particular expression because, in many ways, they are more free and innovative than their American counterparts.

Moreover, Ensenada was declared Creative City by UNESCO in 2015 under the category of gastronomy, acknowledging the role of wine as a catalyst for sustainable development (other winner Mexican cities are San Cristóbal de las Casas for its crafts and Puebla for design).

To map the influences that have made of Baja California the gastronomic reference that is today, you have to explore several angles: culinary influences near and far, bonds of friendship between chefs, producers, winemakers and fishermen... Baja-Med is the result of the intricate ingredients of Mexican cuisine, the oriental influences rooted in Mexicali for more than 100 years and the fresh products of the Mediterranean climate of Ensenada, including seafood: a trio of culinary heavyweights, merged in a corner of Mexico.

Anyone who knows “Ruta del Vino” may think that Baja-Med is sophisticated and sybaritic. You have to look again, because it is more about rescuing the rustic and campirano (without losing the style, of course), recognizing that their collective spirit is deeper than an ephemeral dish of good food... It has to do with the return to the orchard, prioritizing regional development and recognizing the value of every local producer: the spirit of the Baja-Med is, in a word, a path to sustainability, because by consuming its seafood, meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables, wine and beer, any foodie has a role on the economy of small producers, with a very low carbon footprint.

Although far from presenting an exhaustive map of the gastronomic history of Valle de Guadalupe, we start by pointing out 10 valuable initiatives to map its essence. A perfect way to open a conversation with some red wine in hand:

1. Hugo D'Acosta. Definite protagonist of the Mexican wine revolution who has also made its tricks with mezcal. Agronomist, he arrives in 1988 at Santo Tomás winery with a mission: Elevate the quality of wine (and in doing so, the whole region). Hugo sets the tone for the wine boom in the Valley, thanks to his creativity, intuition and great sense of cooperation.

Among its most outstanding projects is Casa de Piedra, a winery that opened its doors in 1997, accompanied by its edible counterpart, Conchas de Piedra, with an excellent oyster bar (sheltered by Drew Deckman, in case any additional reference needed). In 2003, the well known Estación de Oficios at El Porvenir, or "la escuelita" (little school), has promoted the most diverse generations that diversified the way of making wine throughout Ensenada (of course, with the most diverse results). I must say I had the privilege to attend their annual course). Borde Vielle, on the eastern Pyrenees, is a French vineyard that Hugo leads since 2006. A new world wine born in the old continent.

I will make a parenthesis because, before delving into the accumulated wisdom of D'Acosta concerning regional winemaking, it is essential to recognize the impact of climate change in these latitudes. Like it or not, things are changing. To talk about something obvious, it no longer rains as it used to, and only visionary wine growers will be able to adapt. The commitment to varietals that are tolerant to new conditions will define who will continue to produce, and who will have to bring grapes -or water- from afar.

Now yes, we will abound in the strains that D'Acosta defines as winners in this new climatic scenario: the varieties of the French Rhône Valley such as Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Garnacha and Carignan (the latter not very appreciated, he adds) "have a very pretty expression in the area and are rustic enough to grow in more complex climates with lack of water and sometimes extreme suns as those of Baja California. There is a good relationship between what nature can do, what the wine grower feels comfortable with and a market that begins to understand this type of flavors, so these varieties are acquiring weight. The Cabernet Sauvignon continues clinging to foolishness but I believe it has an imminent end, although the market asks for it. Nebbiolo has become a reference and, in any case, it is increasingly evident that we are going to be a mixing zone".

2. It is the turn of a restaurateur giant: chef Javier Plascencia. The "Grupo Plascencia" has around 16 restaurants for all tastes between Tijuana, San Diego and Valle de Guadalupe. In his Finca Altozano, "farm to table" is exalted with fresh produce flourishing all its flavours at the kitchen. I must say this farm to table model deserves a special mention for all that it implies, opening a pause in a society used to bland tomatoes and chicken hurriedly injected with hormones to grow. I confess this high standing, yet casual restaurant is one of my favorites, because of its pleasant ambiance and great landscape.

"What grows together, goes together", is the wise philosophy of Woody van Horn, sommelier of Bracero (a restaurant of the Group), in San Diego. This recommendation resolves how to pair the "deep, dark and audacious" flavors of Mexican wine, considering that wines tend to be a little stronger than their counterparts in California or Europe. In this Mediterranean corner, the winters are humid, but the summers dry and hot, so the grapes are exposed to stress conditions that intensify their flavor and qualities.

3. Victor Torres Alegre. Agronomist of origin who has paved his way to mastery in everything that has to do with wine since 1983 in Ensenada. Today, he holds a Ph.D. in Enology from the University of Bordeaux, and is an icon of winemaking in Mexico. His 7.5 hectare terroir produces the most technically correct wines in the region under the brand Torres Alegre y Familia. International judge, professor of the state University, adviser par excellence of many wine producers and a main promoter for the "Denomination of Origin" of Ensenada’s wine. Gossips say that Victor is, in some ways, the antagonist of intuitive D'Acosta.

4. Laja Restaurant opened in 2001, and in 2017 was considered one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Behind Laja lies Chef Jair Téllez, a main promoter of natural wine in Mexico, with its Bichi brand (which means naked), because the natural process of the vines is respected all the way from the land to the containers, as the plants lack artificial irrigation and is kept far away from imported yeast sachets and added sulfites. This wine rescues varietals that the first missionaries in Baja California knew would adapt to the area and are now totally out of fashion, such as the Rosa del Perú and Misión strains.

The result is propositively daring, because it faithfully expresses the terroir fermenting with yeasts that naturally occur in the environment. The downside of such interesting wine is, nevertheless, high sensitivity to shelf conditions, so bottles must travel little. Natural wine is a niche market which, just like in Europe or the United States, comes from a political stance.

5. Diego Hernández Baquedano, chef at Corazón de Tierra from Ensenada. Honoring the name in spanish, which means heart of the earth, the menu reflects the seasons of the year, as the orchid commands the kitchen. This "endemic" chef uses salt from San Felipe, fish from the Pacific, honey from his hives and olive oil from his neighbors. In Corazón de Tierra there is no cookbook, because the menu is built every week based on the ingredients taken from the garden, and not the other way around.

A year ago, I was fortunate to hear a lecture Diego gave on a rather intriguing subject: the role of a chef in sustainability. As I heard him speak, I could feel my eyes unveiling: the decision to keep ingredients that are not seasonal in the menu has an impact, because an eggplant that traveled 500 km to be part of a dish carries a trace of unnecessary carbon footprint (in packaging, in gasoline, in refrigeration) besides, it is simply better to buy fresh, locally grown produce from the neighbor.

6. A thousand-year-old oak tree to the east of the Guadalupe Valley frames one of the most prestigious restaurants in Mexico: “Deckman's” in “El Mogor”. Drew Deckman is a chef born in Georgia who, after working in the best restaurants in the world, decided to take root in Ensenada, sharing a little of a privileged lifestyle where neighboring ranchers and fisherman friends are part of the equation. Drew stands out not only for the international recognition he has (like his Michelin star), but for demonstrating by example that sustainable practices are not at odds with haute cuisine.

To go no further, Deckman is a leader in the sustainable fish movement Slow Fish, regional governor of Slow Food International and owner of a restaurant of zero kilometers.

7. La Esperanza rises in one of the most iconic terroirs of the Guadalupe Valley, delicately framed by the vineyards of L.A. Cetto. Here, Tijuana's chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero decodes the virtues of a land embraced between two seas, its historical legacy and the fertile intermontane valleys of Mediterranean climate. In this beautiful restaurant, Baja-Med kitchen is presented in one of the most refined versions in Ensenada.

8. Alonso Granados, Decantos winery. One of the most original proposals in the Valley because of its unique pact with gravity. Thus, at 9.87 m/seg, the wort flows from one level to another, completely eliminating mechanical pumps. At Decantos, the wine is not filtered, not clarified, not cold stabilized and it does not contain sulfites, so its broths are more natural and have better organoleptic characteristics (such as fruity aftertaste or intense color).

9. Kruger Wines and Cocina Sabrosa Doble T. The proposal of this duo is one of the most honest and unpretentious in the Valley, complying however with the quality protocol, campirano atmosphere and menu adapted to the season of other flagship restaurants. This family mancuerna is recognized by extravagant, marrying the exquisite boutique wines of its oenologist Eduardo Kruger with the refined sandwiches and loaded ribs of his cousin, Chef Iker Turcott.

10. Of all gastronomic happenings in the Valley, there is one that stands out because of its genuine roots in traditional Mexican cuisine. The Once Pueblos restaurant owes its name to an indigenous region in the southern state of Michoacan, and delivers an interesting sight at Valle de Guadalupe’s cuisine scenery. This year, chef Sandra Vázquez celebrates its anniversary "over the top" inviting renowned traditional cook Juanita Bravo Lázaro.

This Purépecha Indian has traveled the world delighting foreign palates with typical dishes and corn Ichuskuta (a purepecha tortilla). In 2010, she received UNESCO’s recognition on behalf of Mexico, where this institution named Mexican Cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But a video is worth a thousand words:


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