When you think Mexico, wine probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Tequila and mescal, yes – but wine? Not so much. Unknown to many, however, Mexico’s wine region is blossoming and beautiful – a decided heaven for wine-loving foodies who seek more of a genuine Mexico experience than that of an all-inclusive beach vacation. I recently discovered – and fell in love with – this memorable part of the country…
For those in the market for an escape that’s centred on wine and food, Mexico’s wine country, Valle de Guadalupe, makes a solid choice. Located 145 kilometres from San Diego in Baja California, Mexico, the view-filled wine region offers unique restaurants, vineyards, sleek and eco-friendly boutique hotels, rolling hills and farmland. Filled with winding mountain roads with views of the crashing Pacific Ocean below, a trip to Mexico’s wine region means farm-to-table meals, wine tastings in sun-kissed valleys, outdoor adventures like extreme zip lining and horseback riding, poolside lounging, star gazing, and no shortage of photo ops.
While the region housed less than 10 wineries two decades ago, there are now over 150 in Baja California, many filled with blends of quality wine that can rival their California, U.S. counterparts. It feels decidedly less commercial (and more affordable) than Napa Valley, offering an authentic vibe that resonates through the family-owned-and-operated wineries, where the welcoming winemakers are happy to share their respective stories. Though many of the locals have, surprisingly, yet to try the region’s wines, and it sells a relatively low 1.6 million cases of wine per year, Mexico’s wine secret is finally out, as the international spotlight shines on the country’s wine scene, one high-profile media report at a time.
If you find yourself in Valle De Guadalupe, a stop at Finca La Carrodilla is a must. The sprawling winery features panoramic views of the surrounding hills and holds the title of Mexico’s first organically certified vineyard. An expansive, peaceful orchard offers things like kale, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, tomatoes, radishes, Swiss chard, and aromatic herbs. A selection of fresh cheese makes the breezy wine tasting experience here – where you can sip and savour their four monovarietal wines – all the more enjoyable. Other notable wineries worth checking out include Monte Xanic, Vina de Frannes, and Villa Montefiori, to name a few.
Aside from the wine, if you’re a foodie with a soft spot for authentic modern Mexican food (you won’t find any nacho spots here), Baja, California is definitely a region to check off your travel bucket list. In the area, you’ll find unique food experiences that range from Anthony Bourdain-praised street food and local mom and pop spots, to celebrated restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs. The bumpy, narrow dirt roads are all part of the experience when it comes to actually finding the restaurants – the spots aren’t supposed to be easy to access, and the Instagram-worthy meal that awaits is seen as a reward for the journey. To make navigating the area easier, in-the-know tour companies like Club Tengo Hambre – a vibrant young startup that provides curated food experiences – will help you find all the best culinary spots, from hidden gems to local favourites…
The open-air Malva Restaurant offers somewhat of an Italian feel, as guests dine under a palapa and meals come with a backdrop of rolling hills of lush greenery. The spot – which sits on the grounds of the Mina Penelope winery – started as a winery 10 years ago, began producing its own wine seven years ago (it now features over 12 varieties), and has featured a restaurant for four years. The farm-to-table restaurant – where sustainable livestock roam within view – began as a pop-up and is now open year-round to accommodate the growing interest from both tourists and locals. The colourful mural art that decorates the walls is there to render the restaurant more approachable to the locals, says Chef Roberto Alcocer, who acknowledged that it was initially slow to catch on with the surrounding residents. A meal highlight here was a smoked fish salpicon tostada…
Another must-hit spot in Valle De Guadalupe is Finca Altozano, a sprawling country steakhouse that only uses products and ingredients from the surrounding gardens, ranches and sea. The airy outdoor restaurant – which is made more enjoyable in the colder months with dinner service under heaters and blankets – offers an extensive list of wine and craft beer to accompany its memorable food. A particularly notable dish is the fresh grilled octopus from the Pacific, which – submerged in soy sauce, citrus, ginger, cilantro, and peanuts – is among some of the best octopus I’ve tried.
For a traditional, hearty, and completely delicious family-style breakfast, a stop at La Cocina de Doña Esthela – conveniently located right beside the funky, mural-covered La Lomita winery – does not disappoint when it comes to fuelling up before a day of wine tasting. The now bustling 160-seat restaurant began with humble roots, with one table and whatever ingredients owner Doña Esthela could purchase. She would sell tacos and burritos to local workers in trans-border factories and, later, those at the winery. It was when actors from the popular Mexican soap opera telenovela – which was filming nearby – became fans of Esthela’s food that she became somewhat of a local celebrity herself, before earning international acclaim when FoodieHub recognized the restaurant’s signature Manchaca con huevos as the “Best Breakfast in the World.” The must-try dish includes shredded, seasoned dry beef mixed in with scrambled fresh farm eggs, onions, and green pepper and served with a side of house made corn tortillas, refried beans, and fresh homemade cheese.
If you’re looking to make friends and share a meal to write home about, hit Bruma winery and restaurant. Aside from the quality vino, the star of the show at the winery – which was constructed with local and mostly recycled materials – is a stunning 300-year-old oak tree in the barrel hall in which the spot was built around. In the restaurant, guests are encouraged to take their time with the multi-course, experimental meal cooked by David Castro – he describes his style as Mexican with a personal twist inspired by time spent working in San Francisco and New York – and mingle with other guests at communal tables.
For a multi-course, gastronomic experience in Valle De Guadalupe head to Corazón de Tierra, a spot that sits adjacent to the Vena Cava Winery (the self-proclaimed “hippest winery in Mexico”) and was named one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2017. While the six-course tasting menu makes for a less hearty experience than others (i.e. you may need to make a post-dinner taco stop), Chef Diego Hernández Baquedano’s artistic and innovative offerings are modern spins on traditional dishes, with a menu made from local goodness that changes daily.
For a more affordable (but just as palate-pleasing) experience, street food carts occupy real estate on every corner in the region’s coastal city of Ensenada, serving up things like tostadas de mariscos, tacos, ceviche, and cinnamon-infused coffee drinks. “If they have a solid lineup of quality salsas, you know it’s a good taco stand,” says Antonio Diaz de Sandi of Club Tengo Hambre. The birthplace of the famous fish taco, taco stands dot the roads in Ensenada, offering cheap and delicious fish tacos, complete with highly addictive (and completely diet breaking-worthy) chipotle sauce. Just a scenic hour and a half drive away, Tijuana (or “TJ,” as the locals call it) offers all kinds of food experiences, hipster-filled specialty coffee spots, and some of the region’s best craft beer. Here in TJ (do I sound like a local yet?), you’ll find the famous Tortas Wash Mobile, Tijuana’s first long-standing torta stand. At this spot, the menu is simple, featuring only one item: the carne asada torta. The delicious grilled steak sandwich is made with a secret recipe that nobody can replicate, though many have tried.
After a day of wining, dining and adventuring, I recommend booking a stay at the pristine glamping spot Cuatro Cuatros, the sleek eco-resort Encuentro Guadalupe (where Rihanna once stayed), or the new boutique hotel at Bruma Valle de Guadalupe. All are popular options that are – refreshingly – a far cry from your typical resort.
A huge thanks to Visit Mexico for hosting us on this press trip. As always, reviews and opinions are our own. For more on Mexico vacations – including where to go and what to do – check out www.visitmexico.com.