The History of the Baja Wine Region
How did Mexico become a wine producer? The short answer is because of the Spaniards. Spaniards brought vitis vinifera with them because they considered wine a part of their daily diet. They drank wine for pure enjoyment but also for sacramental use. Unknown to most wine lovers, wine in Mexico has a long history. The first vines are believed to have been planted in what is now the state of Veracruz in 1524 as an order given by conquistador Hernan Cortez. He ordered his fellow colonizers to plant one thousand vines per ever one hundred natives.
The first grape brought by the Spanish was the Mission Grape, also known as Listan Prieto, or Listan Negro. The grape was widely cultivated in the Canary Islands by the Spanish, but its origins point to the Castile region in Spain. The grape was brought to Mexico and Peru via the Canaries, spreading plantings to all the new colonies. The first commercial winery in the Americas was established in 1597 in the state of Coahuila and it now bears the name of Casa Madero. The Spanish crown soon realized that wines of great quality were being produced in Mexico, which lead King Phillip II to issue a law prohibiting the planting of new grapevines for commercial use in the New World as a way to eliminate any competition for the domestic Spanish wine market. However, cultivation of grapevines for sacramental and personal use was allowed to the missionaries. Thanks to this exception grapes made it the to Baja Peninsula in 1706.
Catholic missionaries, the agricultural engineers of the time, planted the first vines in what is now known as Mission of Our Lady of Loreto in the year 1706. By 1780, the Dominican friars had founded the San Vicente Ferrer Mission in Baja Norte as their headquarters. San Vicente is about 100 km south of present day Ensenada and from there, they gathered and distributed supplies to the northern missions. By 1791, Dominican friars Jose Loriente and Juan Crisostomo founded Mission de Santo Tomas in the Santo Tomas Valley, 20 km south of Ensenada. They planted grapevines, olive trees – wine growing had officially started in the Baja Norte region.
In 1804, Baja and Alta California were divided. The Dominican friars stayed in charge of all the missions in Baja California, while Franciscans kept the missions in Alta California (present day California). Hard times for wine growing came after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810. Landholdings, including vineyards, originally owned by the church were now owned by the state and winemaking significantly slowed down. Winemaking resumed in 1870 in the Baja region after a businessman named Loreto Amador purchased the land from the state where the Santo Tomas Mission once stood. This marked the beginning of wine production for commercial use in the Baja California Peninsula. The year 1888 is considered the official foundation of Bodegas de Santo Tomas, the oldest winery in the region.
The Terroir of the Baja Wine Region
Valle de Santo Tomas was the epicenter of winegrowing in Baja at first, but winegrowing quickly spread to the adjacent valleys including Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Ojos Negros and Valle de San Vicente due to the ideal growing conditions these other valleys have. Days are long with plenty of sunshine during the summer months, which allows the grapes to fully ripen. Many microclimates exist in these four major valleys. Additionally, all valleys enjoy the cooling breeze from the Pacific Ocean which allow the vines to cool and rest at night.
Valle de Guadalupe: It owes its name to the last mission founded in the region, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, which was founded in 1834. Today the Guadalupe Valle is the largest wine growing valley and it serves as the “storefront” for the rest of the valleys. It’s an ideal valley for growing grapes, since it’s situated only fifteen miles from the Pacific Ocean with mountains on both north and south sides. The valley has a variety of soils: sandy soils near the river bed, granite soils from erosion between the riverbeds and mountains, and red clay soils near the edge of the mountains. The valley has extreme temperature changes that range from 32 degrees Fahrenheit at night during the winter months to 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in the summer months. Guadalupe Valley has an average altitude of 1150 ft (350 m) above sea level, making it an ideal growing site for heat-resistant grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Tempranillo.
Valle de Ojos Negros: This valley is situated east of Ensenada and has the highest elevation of any of the Baja wine growing valleys with a maximum altitude of 2200 ft (670 m) above sea level. The valley owes its name to two oval shaped swamps next to each other that used to resemble two big black eyes. The swamps no longer exist, because most of the area is now under agricultural use. The area is famous for its high-quality cheeses produced by European families that settled the region over one hundred years ago to practice dairy ranching. With the demand for and acceptance of Mexican wine, red and white grapes are now grown in this valley as well. Clay and granite soils abound in this agricultural valley.
Valle de Santo Toma: This is the original site of the Santo Tomas de Aquino Mission and where Bodegas de Santo Tomas now produces most of its wine. The valley is located 28 miles south of Ensenada and roughly 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It has a lower elevation but enjoys cooler temperatures than Guadalupe and Ojos Negros valleys in the summer months. The sunny days and cooler nights pared with sandy, mineral-rich soils are the perfect combination to create some of the best white and red wines from the region.
Valle de San Vicente: This is the southernmost wine growing valley in Baja California, located 56 miles south of the city of Ensenada. Several large producers have been producing great quality grapes in this valley for a long time. The valley is named after the Dominican mission San Vicente Ferrer, which was established in 1780. Valle de San Vicente has an average altitude of 360 ft above sea level and is just 12 miles from the ocean. Red clay soils predominate the best growing sites and white grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the best expression of the valley’s terroir.
Baja California wines have gained a lot of attention in recent years as their quality has improved due to better vineyard management and vinification processes. The area has also attracted attention, because innovative blending of diverse grape varietals is common, creating a “new-world” style of wine. It’s not uncommon to see a wine made with Tempranillo and Nebbiolo for instance.