When it comes to classifying and designating specific grape growing areas in wine country, we are familiar with the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations in the United States and French Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) which falls under the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system. When it comes to designating or classifying grape growing regions in Baja California, things are quite a bit different. In fact, I like to refer to it as organized chaos because there is no formal or governmental system in place to define specific grape growing areas in Mexico. Nevertheless, if you ask winemakers in Baja where the grapes that make their wine come from, you'll here them speak about different valleys. There are around seven valleys that I have heard winemakers in Baja speak about, however there are five valleys that stand out for their quality and are most frequently used. These Valleys are Valle de Guadalupe, Ojos Negros, La Grulla, Santo Tomas and San Vicente. Another popular area where grapes are grown is Tecate. Here is a quick glimpse into the different Valleys that comprise Baja California Norte's most prestigious grape growing areas.
Valle de Guadalupe is where the majority of wineries, restaurants and hotels are located in the greater Ensenada Municipality. To put it in over simplified California Terms, think of the Valle de Guadalupe like Los Olivos, California. Los Olivos is a tasting room hub for wineries from the seven AVA’s of Santa Barbara County. These AVA’s are, Los Olivos District, Santa Ynez, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, Alisos Canyon, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Valle de Guadalupe has an incredible diversity of soil types depending on where you are in the Valle. Near the riverbed, in the middle of the Valle you have ancient sea floor comprised of sand and sandy loam. As you move out towards the mountains on the north or south ends of Valle, you have granite and clay soils.
Ojos Negros is on the other side of the mountain range on the southern end of Valle de Guadalupe. Ojos Negros is at 2,300 feet of altitude in the mountains. Ojos Negros is known for it’s high quality less saline rich water as opposed to the Valle de Guadalupe. The soils in Ojos Negros are made up of alluvial, colluvial, aeolic and lacustrine types. The soils in Ojos Negros are rich in iron and organic content. These soils are said to have been deposited during the Holocene (the last ice age until present) and Quaternary (2.6 million years ago to present) periods. Ojos Negros has a cooler climate due to its altitude and it is not uncommon to see snow in the Sierra de Juarez mountain range where this valley is located. You may find it interesting to know that there are a few Baja winemakers doing Pinot Noir from Ojos Negros.
La Grulla is locate about an hour southeast of downtown Ensenada. La Grulla gets a lot of marine influence and the soils are made up of sand and clay. The cool ocean winds blow through the mountain range at night and cool the grapes off so they can maintain their acidity in an otherwise warm growing region. I have already begun to see more winemakers using fruit from La Grulla and I expect that trend to grow due to the unique micro-climate there.
Santo Tomas is just south of La Grulla and the soils are made up of sand, clay and gravel. The oldest winery in Valle de Guadalupe is also named Santo Tomas and they harvest the majority of their grapes from the Valle de Santo Tomas.
San Vicente is known for its Iron rich red clay soils. San Vicente is the closes grape growing valley to the Pacific Ocean and it gets plenty of marine influence. Many wineries in Baja source their Chardonnay from this area. The well made Chardonnays that are sourced from San Vicente have a good mixture of light tropical fruits, minerality and structure.
Visit the Baja California website for more information.