Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fine wine tasting awaits just across the border

by Beau Russell - The Daily Aztec

The oak barrels at Mexico's Chateau Camou winery in the Valle de Guadalupe contain gallons of fine wine. Mexico doesn't have the fame of wineries in Napa Valley or the Bordeaux region of France, but the products available are of similar quality. (Beau Russell) My girlfriend's parents were visiting from Denmark, and I offered to entertain them for a Sunday. After thinking about potential places to take them that would be both culturally educational and entertaining, I couldn't come up with anything. So I asked my brother, an insider when it comes to travel tips, where I could take them.

"Do they like wine?" he asked.
"Of course. They're European," I answered.
"Well, take them to Mexico," he said.

You're probably as bewildered as I was when he uttered "Mexico" and "wine country" in the same sentence. However, a little known but highly revered wine country has finally begun to gain the recognition of Mexican and American winos alike.

Ten years ago, the Valle de Guadalupe began to sprout vines full of grapes, transforming into the wine-producing region it is today. Wine has become the staple of the valley, and because of the expanding viniculture, restaurants and innkeepers have claimed their stakes right alongside the wine producers. With the development, the quality of the Mexican wines has risen.
"The wines are comparable to the Napa Valley or the regions of France," said Jens Nielsen, my foreign guest. "They are very fine wines."

What has drawn steady-but-not-overwhelming crowds to the region for the past few years has been an exquisite mix of fine dining and award-winning wines, without the notoriety of other regions. Even on Sundays, restaurants with gourmet menus accompanied by wines from the Valle sit half full with excellent service standing by. A day trip is easily feasible on any day of the week, with most of the wineries offering tastings from morning until mid-afternoon. Many wineries that front the Ruta del Vino (Route 3) are easily found by markings from Scenic Highway 1 along the coast of Ensenada. This scenic, well-paved, two-lane highway snakes through green hills, which become lively in the spring months after moisture is carried from the Pacific Ocean into the valley.

Our first stop of the day was the expansive L.A. Cetto winery. Around 80 percent of the valley belongs to L.A. Cetto, and it shows in the full-service wine shop. Because of the sheer size of the winery, including a large shopping boutique and friendly English-speaking employees, it is an easy introduction to the Valle de Guadalupe. Not only do they allow you to sample all of their many products, from merlot to chardonnay to their own tequila, they do it at the most reasonable of prices: free. The employees are equally knowledgeable about the other locations throughout the valley for more tasting and even tips on where to dine.

Other wineries, such as Chateau Camou, a short drive east, are more informal and a great way to explore a less commercialized side of the valley. With hallways filled with oak barrels that raise the wine to specific tastes and textures, the small Chateau sits atop a hill overlooking the valley. The tasting room is nothing more than an informal oak table set in a small room filled with the cool dry air that is essential in the wine-making process. Upon arriving, we shared the hallway with a Mexican family on vacation. Without a care, we all drank our wine and discussed the fruit and bouquets while our friends belted out Banda songs.

And this is what the Valle de Guadalupe has become: a little-known wine region that has incorporated Mexican hospitality and culture into a European tradition. Because of its relatively undiscovered status among even the most well-versed Mexican travelers, a free weekend definitely deserves consideration for an exciting mix of Mexican wine culture.

Beau Russell is a sociology junior.

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