I used to think that the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi had a tough time earning respectability as epicenters of fine wine. Then I began to visit Mexico's principal wine region, Valle de Guadalupe just outside of Ensenada, along the west coast of Baja California south of San Diego.
The vintners of Valle de Guadalupe face more obstacles than most appellations in getting recognition for their wines. The region is remote and ragged. It's in Mexico, broadly seen as too hot and arid to grow wine grapes. It's in a culture where all sorts of other beverages, from margaritas to fruit smoothies, get first call at fiesta and dinner. While Valle de Guadalupe and a few smaller nearby appellations yield around 200 wines each harvest, most of them are made in small lots, too tiny to draw the interest of distributors. And lately wine tourism in the area has virtually dried up as wine enthusiasts from southern California postpone treks in the wake of brutal drug-related violence about border cities.
With more confidence and patience than frustration and anger, however, Antonio Luis Escalante Dominguez, shown here signing bottles of his wines during a tasting at the southern reaches of Baja the other day, talked of these barriers he and his fellow Valle de Guadalupe vintners are up against as they try to establish eminence on the world wine stage. He and his pal Rogelio Sanchez del Palacio started to make home wine in 1987, went commercial in 2001, and established their winery Roganto at Ensenada in 2006.
Today, their wines speak of the Valle de Guadalupe and other valleys about Ensenada with lush textures, mouth-filling fruit, and the sweet, smoky and spicy overlay of new toasted oak, most of it French and American, some of it Hungarian and Russian. Among their current releases, the aromatic and off-dry Roganto 2008 San Vicente Sauvignon Blanc is the zestiest and cleanest interpretation of the varietal I've found from Baja California; the Roganto 2007 Tramonte, a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo from three valleys near Ensenada, is a fresh, forward, spicy and sharp multi-dimensional delight; and the Roganto Cosecha Tardia 33, a rare late-harvest cabernet sauvignon, is inky in color, a veritable furniture showroom in smell (wicker, leather, mahogany) and so sweet I began to look around for the chocolate flan.
Antonio Luis Escalante Dominguez has just one request of anyone curious about Mexican wine: Roll one into a blind tasting and see what happens. He likes to tell of an aspiring wine steward who while attending sommelier classes in Vancouver took along a bottle of Roganto's 2003 cabernet sauvignon. Not without hesitation, he added it to the lineup for a blind tasting that also included cabernet sauvignons from such Napa Valley heavyweights as Far Niente and Duckhorn. Of the five wines in the tasting, the Roganto was voted the best by 11 of the 15 students, says Dominguez.
"Most people are surprised by our wines. They don't believe they are made in Mexico," Dominguez says. "We are a very small region in terms of quantity, but we do have quality." All he's asking is that Mexican wines get a fair shake. But to find them for blind tasting is likely going to require a trip to Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe; few make it north of the border.