Your next wine vacation should be in Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley

To commemorate the opening of an all-Mexican wine bar in San Francisco this week, Chronicle Wine reporter Jess Lander takes over the newsletter to offer her tips on visiting Mexico’s wine country.

Cantina Los Mayas, which claims to be the first in the United States to exclusively serve Mexican wines, opens Thursday in Inner Richmond. In Esther Mobley’s report on the opening, Cantina Los Mayas brand manager Joe Bonadio called Mexico’s premier wine region, Valle de Guadalupe, one of “the hottest new appellations in the world”. Over the past few years, I’ve heard this exact sentiment voiced in low tones throughout the California wine industry. It’s as if wine professionals wanted “the Valley” – as the region is often called by connoisseurs – to remain a well-kept secret from tourism.

After my first visit last April, I understand why. Unfortunately for them, Cantina Los Mayas hopes to finally unveil this secret. And I’m here to help their cause.

Visiting Valle is like Napa Valley in the 80s or 90s, when tastings were cheap, reservations weren’t necessary, and wine cost no more than $100 a bottle.

Mexican wines are not yet well distributed among American wine merchants and restaurants. With this new addition, Bay Area drinkers can finally get a good introduction to this burgeoning wine region, where many wines have a distinct salty note due to high levels of salinity in the soils. But after visiting Cantina Los Mayas, I encourage you to visit the Valle in person.

Located 90 miles south of the border in North Baja, La Valle is arguably the easiest and most affordable international wine region for US citizens to visit. Fly to San Diego, then rent a car that can cross the border. Google Maps will take you through the Tijuana port of entry, but I’d suggest heading a bit away from Tecate instead, which tends to have much shorter wait times. Another option is to book a day trip to a winery from San Diego, which will take care of the logistics for you.

Don’t expect a Cabo vibe – at least not for a few years. Valle is rustic, with dirt roads and construction everywhere as the region tries to keep up with a sudden influx of tourism. That demand has been compounded by the pandemic, with American travelers seeking closer international destinations. When booking accommodation, beware: many new hotels or vacation rentals are lipstick listings made for Instagram, not comfort.

It’s all part of the charm, though. Decades from now you will be able to say, “I remember the good old days.

While grapes were first planted in the Valley in the 1500s, its modern industry is decades young. He is now in his golden age of experimentation, trying a bit of everything in search of his true identity. (The downside is that wine quality varies.) There’s a good mix of classic producers, like Adobe Guadalupe, and a new generation of trendy brands focused on natural wines like Bichi. Due to a dry and warm Mediterranean climate, combined with a refreshing Pacific influence, the winemakers are able to work with a wide range of grapes – this includes Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Tempranillo from Spain and Nebbiolo from Italy.

One of the most exciting things about Valle wines is that many winemakers are keen to disregard some of the Old World traditions, taking unorthodox approaches that would make most winemakers cringe. Napa and the French winemakers collapsing. European wine blends, for example, are traditionally made with grapes from the same regions – like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône – but Mexican winemakers are inventing their own combinations.

My favorite combo from Mexico is Nebbiolo and Tempranillo, though one particularly funky natural wine blend I tried from Viñas del Tigre was made from nine different varietals, including Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, and the nearly extinct variety Assignment.

I also had an interesting first in the Valley: a Bruma white wine made from Carignan red grape varieties. Red wines get their color from the skins of grapes, so this process is done by separating the fermenting grape juice from the skins before the color is imparted to the liquid. There are over 100 wineries in the Valley, but Bruma is a must visit not only for its wines, but also for its unique cellar design that takes sustainability to another level. Recycled telescope lenses, for example, bring in natural light, and the cylinder-shaped building was designed around a tree. Visitors are greeted by its limbs, which protrude from a pond at the entrance, and its trunk is the center of the barrel room. Even in Napa there is nothing like it. The wines run the gamut and highlight the region’s experimental phase. Ask about the VIP Tasting Room for a more intimate experience and then reserve a table for lunch at Bruma Wine Garden.

For a completely different Bruma experience, I recommend the trusty Adobe Guadalupe, which sticks to traditional winemaking. Founded in the late 1990s, the winery is run by fierce American co-founder Tru Miller. The most impressive wines are a series of complex red blends inspired by some of the world’s most famous wine regions, such as Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Most visitors opt for the relaxing, no-frills Adobe tasting alongside a food truck, but the Cellar Experience lets you visit Millers’ charming Mission-style home, which doubles as an inn. (You can also book a particularly luxurious stay at Bruma, and many Valle wineries have hotels and restaurants in addition to wine tasting.)

Finally, there is the food. Valle’s restaurant scene is incredibly upscale. The best meal I had there was the gourmet pop-up Animalón, but the 12-course tasting menu at Baja Omakase next to a vineyard was also something I will never forget.

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