Monday, 12 December 2016

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - Baja California and the Valle de Guadelupe, Mexico (part 2)

The wineries of Day Three of the Valle de Guadalupe trip conspired to somehow be yet more startling. First of the day (after a brief sidestep to sleepy Guadalupe village to pick up some handmade wooden toys to keep baby Daisy occupied during the forthcoming wine-fest) was Adobe Guadalupe, another outfit specialising mainly in high-end reds hovering around the US$30 mark.

The tasting was relaxed and very enjoyable, and the wines suitably silky smooth, but Adobe is almost as well known in the area for its Aztec horse breeding programme, and its food truck serving interesting Mediterranean-Mexican fusion dishes such as this “Picosito” of beef tongue, prawns and potatoes. Plus even without the gorgeous wines and fine foods, it would be impossible not to enjoy the time spent in this fragrant Mediterranean garden as the horses ran about in the nearby fields.

Decantos Vinicola was perhaps the single most impressive facility of the entire trip, and there was some serious competition on that front. Situated high up on the northern side of the Valle, with extraordinary views over the nearby vineyards and down towards Guadelupe village, this monolithic modernist edifice, with acres of steel and glass contrasting with organic details such as a tasting bar made from varnished driftwood, is a true temple to winemaking. Their claim to fame is that the whole winemaking process is powered by nothing more than gravity, with no mechanical pumping, and so the various stages of the process happen at different elevations. Which I’m sure is all very clever but mainly means you look down on the wine vats from viewing galleries at ground level, turning the whole thing into a special kind of theatre.

Back down the valley and to another modernist masterpiece, Vinos Emeve. So new they were still installing the spot lighting when we arrived, here we eschewed the usual tasting flight and instead ordered two glasses of a Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier blend called Isabella, which had been specifically recommended by the lovely people at Adobe. It was stately and refined, and tasted all the better for the surroundings.

I worry about repeating myself, but in all honesty it felt like each next spot on the trip was more impressive than the last. And if you were ever tempted to take the superb wines, breathtaking views, engaging service and architectural marvels for granted, there’d be some extra wonderful twist around the corner, such as the Conchas de Piedra seafood bar overlooking the Casa de Piedra vineyard. Run by Drew Deckman, the chef whose restaurant we’d eaten at the night before, this beautiful open-plan kitchen and bar was in fact the only place where we tried sparkling wine the whole trip (the very nice and crisp Espuma de Piedra), which is just as well as I can think of nothing better to serve with the selection of Baja oysters that they offer from the daily menu. Oh yes, and the dressed local clam was great, too.

That evening, our dinner was at Finca Altozano, from our favourite Baja chef Javier Plascencia. We’d been to his high-end Tijuana spot Mision 19 a number of times, and never had less than a brilliant time, so we felt in safe hands in this mid-range bar and grill towards the centre of the Valle. The food was – as we’ve come to expect from this man – superb, leaning towards charcoal-roasted meats and fish but always with the Plascencia-style nods to international Meditteranean such as this plate of local mushrooms and a lovely soft baguette. A New York Strip steak was, as you can see, cooked beautifully with a great thick salty char containing soft, pink flesh inside. If you’re ever in this part of the world and have a chance to eat at any of his places (there’s a good number dotted around San Diego and northern Baja), just go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

It was the perfect end to the trip. In fact, it wasn’t quite the end, not yet, but I’m going to call it the end because it was the last place in the Valle de Guadalupe and I’m going to call it the end so we can end on a high note, because after we left the safety of our beloved Valle and returned to the Real World, well, things went downhill slightly.

There’s every chance you’re the kind of person who would take somewhere like Popotla in your stride, laugh off the hustlers and hawkers hassling you into their restaurants, enjoy the ear-splitting din from the enforced “entertainment”, make the most of what was a fairly grim-looking tray of deep-fried mystery seafood, and come away with your sanity intact. But I’m afraid I’m not one of those people. Popotla “Fishing Village” was my own personal nightmare; stressful, garish, smelly and – horror of horrors – cash only, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was also surprisingly chilly, an unusual dense sea mist shrouding the place in dampness and providing an extra level of creepy end-of-the-pier weirdness. It was about as far from the refined, relaxed Valle de Guadalupe as you could go in the space of an hour, and made the forthcoming 4-hour wait in the Tijuana border crossing seem like a blessed relief in comparison. My advice is do not go to Popotla.

But I said I’d end on a high note and I will. I got the impression that the Valle de Guadalupe is on the cusp of serious international fame, yet we caught it at that magical moment where everything is ready – the stunning wineries, the wonderful restaurants – but is not yet overwhelmed with visitors or the kind of low-rent tourist tat (I’m looking at you, Puerta Nuevo and Popotla) that inevitably come when such fame finally lands. Beautiful, charming and so very easy to enjoy at every moment, it’s the kind of place in which you could easily spend weeks and yet still be discovering brand new vineyards and asadors every day, tucked away from public view on the dusty backroads that snake either side of the valley. It’s a rare and special place, and my only reservation about telling you about it is that I hope it doesn’t change too much when the word gets out. But when has that ever stopped me before?

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