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Exploring the birth of American wine, rebirth of fine wines from Baja, Mexico

Time:2017-08-31 10:29wine - Red wine life health Click:

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No matter how gorgeous our summer, Chicagoans know that we'll soon need an escape from winter's marrow-freezing chill.

Maybe to a pristine beach? A tropical resort? Or a tour of an emerging wine region?



Ross' choice

Name: Tempranillo/Nebbiolo

Region: Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Producer: Corona del Valle

Vintage: 2015

Availability: Currently limited to websites (about $25) and area restaurants, including Morton's The Steakhouse, Chicago.

(Distributed by: Bodin Street Wines & Spirits, Chicago)

A truly international wine, combining classic grapes of Spain (Tempranillo), Italy (Nebbiolo), Baja terroir and expertise acquired by winemaker Jac Cole's 20-year stint in Napa Valley. Plush and multifaceted with flavors of ripe plum and berries, brown spice and black pepper. The powerful finish makes a delicious complement to steak recipes from around the world. 450 cases produced.


Now lovers of sun, surf and wine can have it all in Baja, Mexico.

In fact, Mexico is the motherland of American wine, more so than Mendoza (Argentina), Colchagua (Chile), or even California.

Wine grapes were first imported to this continent in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors, in search of Mexican gold. Spanish missionaries who followed tended the vineyards. When Mexican wines interfered with Spanish imports, el rey King Charles I ordered the vineyards destroyed. But the good Padres carried the Word and the vine down to South America and up into what is now our California coast. Evidence of their influence still exists, including architecture (such as the Robert Mondavi Winery) and in the colloquial name of America's first grape -- the "Mission" grape.

The rebirth of Baja wine began in 1972 when industry giant Casa Pedro Domecq established operations in Valle de Guadalupe. In 2003, Mexican-born and Bordeaux-trained winemaker Hugo D'Acosta founded Estacion de Oficios del Porvenir, a school, think tank and equipment resource for new wineries. Like Robert Mondavi in Napa, D'Acosta ignited dreams of quality in Baja winemakers.

It's not a no-brainer. The climate is hot -- much like Bordeaux, France -- but hotter; also like Bordeaux, the soil is sandy but sandier. Annual rainfall ranges from three inches to 10; wine grapes require at least six inches rainfall. This terroir limits vineyard capacity to less than two tons of fruit per acre, translating to about 120 cases.

"There's no 'Two Buck Carlos' in Baja," jokes Tom Bracamontes, Owner of La Competencia Imports, representing many of Baja's finest properties.

The region is taking baby steps. "Ten years ago, sommeliers wouldn't taste the wines," Bracamontes reports. "Now, they call us for appointments."

This reporter sees what the Baja buzz is all about, from a recent Chicagoland tasting, sponsored by the local distributor, Bodin Street. Favorites include:

Tinto GSM, Fluxus: A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, so classic that it has its own shorthand: GSM. The grapes are dry-farmed, aged in French oak barrels for 15 months to reveal vibrant red fruit aroma and mouth watering, extra-ripe fruit flavor with expressive aged-meat and exotic spice accents, firm acidity and pleasing tannin. (About $25)

"Aqua," Alximia: Produced to honor the water that is a vineyard's life's blood. "Aqua" blends Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, and Garnacha, each fermented and aged twelve months in French oak for unique and appealing flavors of herb, licorice and berries with soft tannin, reminding this palate of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Indeed, the importer suggest a food complement of atun crudo (tuna tartare) or tiradito de atun (a cross between ceviche and sushi.) (About $30)

"Apogeo" Nebbiolo, Cava Maciel: Dense, bright color. Lean, lithe and muscular in the mouth, with flavors of black fruits, black pepper and cocoa. Serve with grilled meats or, to give the nod to Nebbiolo's Italian roots, risotto with mushrooms or truffles. (About $40)

Valle de Guadalupe is enjoying the growing pains of every new wine region.

On the upside, little regulation means anything goes. "Asking for permission is expensive, but the fines are cheap," explains Bracamontes. "We embrace the weird. We can change wines every year to reflect our crop."

On the downside, expense. While other regions including Argentina, Chile, even France's famed Bordeaux were established when land was cheap; Baja stopped being cheap when modern travelers discovered its Old World beauty and pristine natural environment, complete with whale watching.

As reputation grows, supply shrinks. With in-and-out retail availability, your surest sources are websites and Chicago's restaurant scene, including fine Mexican spots (Quiote, Frontera Grill, Lena Brava, Barrio) and steak palaces (Morton's, David Burke's Primehouse and Kinzie Chophouse.)

And, because most wineries are family-owned and operated (upside), there's little time for websites or marketing.

So, Bracamontes volunteers his services to organize winery tours.

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