Travel Diaries

It’s Time to Rethink Mexican Wine

By Annie Shaw

In 1987, oenologist Hans Backoff Escudero founded winery Monte Xanic and started teaching others how to make high-quality wines in the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. Everyone got on board, and now about 120 wineries dot the almost 25,000-acre valley, which has been getting international recognition for the variety of grapes that can be grown there and its innovative approach to blending.

Leaving the cruise ship destination that is Ensenada behind and heading inland along the agave-studded cliffs, we arrived at the lush 79-acre winery and luxury resort of El Cielo — a soothing respite from our dusty Mexican journey. After a day of gentle trundling around the vineyards and learning about El Cielo’s 15 varietals and state-of-the-art winemaking technologies, we sipped award-winning wines made by the three-generation wine making family of Jesus Rivera, watched the winery’s Harris’s hawk protect sweet Nebbiolo grapes from thieving avian miscreants, and enjoyed peaceful relaxation by the pool in the shade of palm trees.

El Cielo wines are named after constellations and astronomers, and when the sun finally dipped below the mountains, those stars glittered brightly in the inky, warm night sky thanks to the valley’s remoteness from light-polluting cities

Our Baja-Yucatán-style fusion dinner at one of El Cielo’s restaurants was outstanding. The chef was Michelin-starred Jonatán Gómez Luna, one of the top five in the emerging generation of Mexican chefs. The wine pairings by resort sommelier Georgina Estrada Gil, were spot on, and talk at the table buzzed with stories of the wine blending and other classes held earlier. Not only were we sipping great wine, but we were also learning more about it than we ever had.

I was lost in comparing this winery to the delights of Napa and really struggling to find differences while walking back to our villa. The valley’s scale, the carefully pruned vineyards, the contemporary décor, the warm weather and the pride in the winemaker’s cave were all very much a familiar experience. But the faint sound of mariachi music drifted across the gardens, and following it, we soon came across a villa sparkling with music and dancing guests spilling onto the courtyard. There were trumpets, guitars, violins and a bright tenor belting out a classic song everyone clearly knew the words to.

As we stood in awe of the party going on in front of us, one of the guests made a beeline out of the open patio door and immediately I wondered if we were going to be shooed away as trespassers on a private affair. But it was quite the opposite: She dragged us inside by the hand. It turned out to be a birthday celebration for one of the owners, and she, her business partner and our oenologist, Rivera, were surrounded by family while enjoying a deafening, swirling and wine-soaked dance to the band. And we had to join in. Apparently it was not optional and everyone agreed.

Three times we tried to escape the relentlessly inclusive party and three times we were pulled back in. “You thought you’d get kidnapped when you came to Mexico, didn’t you?” one of our hosts chortled. “Well, you’ve been kidnapped now!”

And that’s when I realized the difference between Napa and El Cielo: Warmth. There’s no more delightful-but-squirmy feeling for an awkward Brit than being pulled into the familial embrace of this kind of joyfully shared, earthy and authentic experience. This delight in winemaking and great food is infectious, passionate and truly Mexican.

El Cielo Winery and Resort

Ecologically aware: In 2015 the winery was named the first Eco Responsible Company by the Ensenada Council. It was also the first winery in Mexico to use solar panels for all its power needs.

How to get to El Cielo: Fly to San Diego and be picked up by the resort for the 90-minute ride to the Guadalupe Valley. Driving yourself? The Border Wait Time app is invaluable.

What else to do there: There are winemaking classes, hot air balloon trips and even horseback riding. Visit some of the other 120 wineries in the Guadalupe Valley, or take a day trip to Ensenada, source of the original margarita. A spa will be opening at El Cielo in 2019, with in-room services until then.

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