The adventure is an easy escape from the U.S. and worth it, either on your own or with tour guides. To get there from San Diego, cross the border and follow the signs to the toll road, which parallels the Pacific Ocean. You’ll be struck by the beauty of the coast, with fine surf breaks, rugged cliffs and new and established housing developments in gated communities, mostly favored by gringos from the north.
Just north of Ensenada, turn left onto Highway 3 toward Tecate and drive about 20 minutes along this Baja route du vin into the valley. We recently visited for two days and one night, tasting at six wineries and enjoying a wide range of cuisine at rustic to semi-fancy restaurants. We had visited for one day previously, on a day trip from Ensenada, a busy port town with fishing fleets moving in and out with fresh catches of the day to serve the region.
The Valle de Guadalupe looks like some parts of Temecula, in Riverside County to the north of San Diego, before it was developed and the rolling hills there were covered with vines and wineries. The wineries and some of the best restaurants in the valley are scattered along dusty tributaries to a few main roads. You will bounce along rutted dirt roads on your way to destinations unknown, easing slowly around larger potholes and past open fields with little sign of wine-related vegetation. Then, our guide points up the road and we see — a mile or so away on the side of a hill among neat rows of vines — an impressive modern wood and glass structure, in this case, Decantos Vinicola, the gravity-flow boutique winery with limited production in a stunning setting.
Other wineries we visited during our two trips: Villa Montefiori, Monte Xanic, Torres Alegre, Adobe Guadalupe, La Lomita and Encuentro. We tasted a wide range of wines, including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir (yes, a few wineries have found cooler east-facing hillsides with good breezes and the right soil to try making Pinot Noir).
Having tasted thousands of Baja wines over the past three decades, I can report that the overall quality keeps rising every year. The wineries have continued to experiment and, in most cases, have found the varieties that work best for their places in the valley and in other wine areas to the west, south and east. Some wines from the valley have a distinct saltiness to the finish because of the local water and soils.
A few wineries have tried locating wells in new areas to avoid the saline character and are succeeding. The other areas include: San Antonio de las Minas, at a higher elevation in a cool valley close to Ensenada; Valle San Vicente, south of Valle de Guadalupe; Valle de Santo Tomas, where the pioneering Santo Tomas started; and Ochos Rios, with new vines planted at the 2,400-foot elevation. For marketing purposes, the wineries use Valle de Guadalupe as the appellation on most front labels. Some include details on vineyard origins on the back labels. L.A. Cetto uses Baja California as the appellation on some of its wines.
For quality and style, the newer boutique wineries use the latest technology and French and American oak barrels for aging. Some pick the grapes earlier to keep alcohol levels below 15 percent. The freshest white wines are issued at 12 to 13 percent.
Our favorite wines were blends. Torres Alegre, which has the most expensive wines in the valley based on the work of a French-trained enologist, offered a rich 50-50 Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc called La Llave Blanca for $30. Torres Alegre also had our highest scoring wine of the visit, a 2006 La Llava Tinta for $50 featuring a blend of 80 percent Cabernet Franc and 20 percent Merlot, with two years in French oak. It had an older Bordeaux-style nose, bright fruit on the palate, balanced to big, with a long tight woody finish (Click here for the PDF download for all tasting notes).
Second favorite was a Rhone blend from Adobe Guadalupe, its 2009 Kerubiel (the Adobe Guadalupe wines are named after angels; Gabriel is the Bordeaux blend), for $55. The tasting notes: mid-garnet, brick edges; floral, black cherry nose; balanced, smooth, ore elegant style; good fruit and smooth finish, hints of wood.
A close third: the 2014 Monte Xanic Gran Ricardo, for $58, a blend of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent each Petit Verdot and Merlot, and aged 24 months in 100 percent new French oak. It had a berry, mint, big wood nose, with good structure and a long semi-chewy finish (needs time).
Best value in reds from our visits: La Lomita 2014 Tinto de la Hacienda, $24, a blend of 71 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot and 14 percent Syrah. The white: Villa Montefiori 2016 Chardonnay $12, 100 percent Chardonnay, 12.5 percent alcohol, no oak, nice and crisp.
For a wide variety of wines in lower price ranges, visit L.A. Cetto, the Gallo of Mexico, which was founded in 1974 and now produces over 1 million cases of wine a year. The facilities and tasting room are impressive. We enjoyed their private reserve Chardonnay and a peppery, complex Petite Sirah. Their wines are available in the U.S., as are some from Adobe Guadalupe, though in limited distribution.
For lodging, some choose to stay in Ensenada and make day trips back and forth. We enjoyed Hacienda Guadalupe on the main road in the valley. For dining, the valley has become something of a foodie destination. Without getting into an extensive series of restaurant reviews, we can recommend Traslomita at La Lomita, our favorite because of the setting, the serenity and the quality of the food and wine. Another bonus: their seats have cushions, which are absent at most restaurants we tried in the valley. Check TripAdvisor for more.
A great lunch stop: Deckman’s at Mogor. What started with one large grill and a few tables under a corrugated tin roof, surrounded by hay bale walls, has grown to become one of the valley’s favorite stops for farm-garden-ocean-to-table dining. Some media called this a “glorified campsite restaurant.” The dining experience rises far above it.
One of the top-rated dinner spots: Finca Altazono, by celebrity chef Javier Plascencia. He has restaurants on both sides of the border. The valley restaurant has a roof but no walls. On chilly nights, make sure you are seated near a ceiling heater. The farm-to-table menu, with many seafood choices, is imaginative and the quality high.
For more information on the valley, websites are limited. They should put together their equivalent of the Napa Valley Vintners organization and create something compelling and easy to use, to the benefit of all wineries in the valley. This Baja California site gives you a good start at identifying wines in the valley. The Got Baja site has maps of the major tourist areas in Baja California. For touring, we had a packed, customized tour arranged and expertly led by Fernando Gaxiola, from Baja Wine and Food.