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[*] posted on 11-12-2005 at 07:12 AM
A taste of Mexico days of wine and chocolate

November 12, 2005

Wine-lovers have a hot, new destination - the dry and breezy hillsides of the Baja desert of western Mexico.

We're in San Antonio de las Minas, several hours south of San Diego, sipping a spicy, fruity blend of merlot and cabernet franc with its maker, Antonio Badan. We listen attentively as he talks about an evening breeze that is a secret resource for the 16 wineries that line Highway 3 from Tecate to Ensenada.

Badan, who looks more like a professor on holiday than a winemaker, has a day job studying ocean currents in a Mexican government laboratory on the Pacific coast. That breeze, he says, picks up a cool ocean undercurrent and travels along Mexico's Ruta Del Vino (wine route) in the Valle de Guadalupe.

No matter how hot the Mexican summer, the breeze "makes our climate like Bordeaux," said Badan, 53, owner of the Mogor Badan vineyard.

The other secret is the soil, which combines crushed granite and clay. "The vines go deep to thrive, very like Portugal and the Cotes du Rhone," explained Badan, pouring more wine. The heat of the day makes the grapes "synthesize," as he put it, and produce sugar, while the cool breeze at night causes the fruit to develop acids - the two building blocks of good wine.

It was an enlightening conversation and explained why this barren, rural land of scrub-covered hillsides is being talked about by wine-lovers as the next Napa valley, California's celebrated wine country. We felt lucky, Marian Burros of the New York Times and I, to have discovered it early. We quickly decided the perfect visitor's day trip would include visits to three styles of wineries, the big fish market and fish snack bars of Ensenada, and a wind-up meal at a superb country restaurant.

The wines are excellent, most of them reds made from a variety of grapes, plus a few fine whites, including Badan's Chasselas, a sparkling, fruity wine he makes from vines planted 50 years ago by his Swiss-born father. Vineyards began in the valley much earlier; Spanish missionaries planted vines when they settled here in the mid-16th century. Santo Tomas, one of the region's flourishing wineries, was started in 1888 on a former Dominican vineyard. The modern era started in the 1970s.

Our tour guide, Roberto Arjona, who runs Rancho La Puerta, Tecate's fitness spa where we were guests, chose our winery stops for both quality and variety. Vina de Liceaga, just south of Mogor Badan, is a mid-sized winery run by Eduardo Liceaga, a former Mexico City civil engineer and construction mogul who turned his country retreat into a bustling wine business. Liceaga also praised the ocean breeze, which he called "natural air conditioning."

His tasting room, a cool and elegant little lounge lined with bottles, made me think of smaller wineries in the Napa valley and Europe. It was quite a contrast to Badan's converted tractor shed with folding tasting table. Liceaga has won prizes for his merlot and is working on an Italian-style grappa.

Driving to our third winery, the big, luxurious Chateau Camou, we passed another intriguing piece of valley history - an old Russian graveyard. In 1904, a group of 100 pacifist Molokan families, fleeing conscription into Russia's czarist army, settled in the valley and planted vines on their farms. A descendant, David Bibayoff Dalgoff, makes wine at Bodegas Valle de Guadalupe.

Camou, started by another Mexico City entrepreneur, Ernesto Alvarez-Morphy, has a Disney look, thanks to its towering hacienda, courtyard and masses of pink roses. The roses, we learned as we tasted prize-winning vintages, are more protection than garden: if a disease threatens the vines, it will first appear on the roses.

This winery recalled for us the glitz of the larger Napa wineries, particularly after we toured the vast hall lined with French oak barrels and read notices promoting wine tours that include lunch.

Visitors need to plan their lunch stop in this valley. There are only a few small hotels and one exceptional restaurant, Laja Restaurante. Located at a mid-point on the wine route, the restaurant crystalized for us the best of the new Mexican gastronomy.

We spent a couple of hours in the spacious tile-floored dining room, savouring the cuisine of Jair Tellez, 32, who grew up in Tecate and trained in Mexico City and in the United States, including at Daniel in New York. He uses local food, including the organically grown fruit and vegetables from the Mogor Badan winery farm, fish from the Ensenada market, local meats, olive oil, and his pick of the Mexican wines.

"This is the frontier of a culinarily unique area which has not yet been exploited," said the chef, grabbing handfuls of avocados and gesturing at the farms that surround his stone and adobe restaurant. Although chilis can be found in Tellez's seasonings, he's not interested in what he regards as the cliches of Mexican food, which he describes as ranging "from mediocre to mediocre."

We marvelled at his imaginative, fresh combinations: purple artichoke soup flavoured with smoked ham, garlicky octopus with broccoli, warm sardines with fennel and a black-olive vinaigrette, and braised lamb with sage and caramelized cabbage. Desserts cooled our appetites with fruit sorbets and ice creams that he accented with Valrhona chocolate.

Customers come from afar. A table of golfers who had driven from San Diego appeared ready to spend the rest of the day over the food and drink. Tellez, a lively man, said he's only beginning to get the local farmers involved in supplying him with specialties. "This is a long process, and trendy, flashy foods don't make the difference," he said.

The other don't-miss food stop is in Ensenada, where a big fish market serves the entire region. After you've walked past lavish displays of fish, you can settle in to snack and people-watch at one of the many family snack bars. It was here, say insiders, that the fish version of the taco originated. You could start your morning here, laying a base for the wine-tasting to come, and work your way north, ending up at Laja Restaurante for a leisurely and memorable finale.

Importing wine is filled with red tape, so we didn't attempt it, although the hardy can place orders. The SAQ offers two reds from L.A. Cetto winery, a petite syrah and a cabernet sauvignon, both priced at $11.55. Coming shortly is another red, a nebbiolo, from the same winery, which will sell for $19.45.



Laja Restaurante requires reservations;

Party time in the Valle de Guadalupe is the annual Fiestas de la Vendimia in August at Ensenada and all the wineries, where tastings, special meals, concerts, and a paella-making contest are offered. For information on all the wineries, other tourist attractions in the valley, and the festival, visit the website:

To arrange a visit and tasting, contact the wineries:

Chateau Camou

Vina de Liceaga

Mogor Badan can be reached at:

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