Before Corona beer, even before tequila, the tipple of choice in colonial Mexico was wine.
According to popular lore, when the Conquistadors ran out of their supply of Spanish red during their overthrow of the Aztec empire in 1521, Hernan Cortes ordered the planting of 1000 grapevines for every 100 native workers (that is, slaves), thus creating the first vineyards in the New World.
But a future of rosé and tacos was not to be. After Spanish king Charles II banned commercial wine production in Mexico in1699, the fledgling industry fell into oblivion, and even when restrictions were lifted after independence in 1857, high taxes and low quality hindered the nectar of the gods from becoming a staple on Mexican menus.
Fast forward to the 21st century, however, and wines from South of the Border are experiencing a long-awaited renaissance. Its premium wines are gaining international traction. This year, for the first time in its history of participation, Mexico was one of the top medal-winning nations at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, taking out 39 medals including 12 golds.
The epicentre of this surprising success story is Valle de Guadalupe, 20 kilometres inland from Ensenada in northern Baja California. Coined "the Napa of Mexico", this wild, undulating landscape strewn with granite boulders, sagebrush and prickly pear is also prime grape-growing terrain, its hot, dry summers tempered by the cooling mists of the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the region produces 90 per cent of Mexico's wines, with 160 wineries scattered along the newly created 77 square-kilometre Ruta del Vino (Wine Route). Add to that a burgeoning chef-driven culinary scene, quirky tasting rooms and hip, eco-friendly architecture, and it's little wonder that Valle, as it's commonly known, has become Mexico's secret tourism weapon.
Beloved by sophisticated, urbane Mexicans seeking a romantic weekend away, the destination also attracts day-trippers from Southern California, who make the trek across the border to what is ostensibly their closest wine region.
For international visitors, however, a contentious US/Mexico border situation complicates a visit to Valle de Guadalupe. In general, US rental car companies won't allow vehicles to be taken across the border, and most wine tours depart from Tijuana, which means negotiating immigration procedures on foot.
Enter Boca Roja Wine Adventures, a company offering door-to-door day trips and custom tours to the Baja wine region from San Diego, the southernmost city in California. "Ten years ago, I hadn't even heard of Valle de Guadalupe, despite it being right on San Diego's doorstep," Boca Roja founder Tim Barnes tells me as we arrange the logistics of my visit. "But after a friend took me there for a wine-tasting weekend, I was hooked. I threw in my job in the finance world to follow my dream of sharing this incredible place."
From a pick-up at San Diego station, to drop-off at the airport three days later, my tour with Boca Roja Wine Adventures is seamless. Border crossings are relatively speedy and stress-free, my guides are personable and knowledgeable and I don't have to worry about drink-driving between cellar doors.
The pace is leisurely and flexible, embracing the unpretentious nuances of Mexico. At Rosarito, a beachside community just south of Tijuana, we join the local throng devouring delicious street tacos from the famed Tacos el Yaqui while, at my insistence, we stop by Hussongs Cantina in Ensenada, the oldest bar in Baja California and the original home of the margarita.
Swinging inland at Ensenada, we leave behind the notorious June gloom shrouding the Pacific coastline, the mist evaporating to reveal a backdrop straight out of a spaghetti western. A sombrero-wearing vaquero rides a scruffy steed down a dusty street. A teenage boy chases a herd of goats through a vegetable market. A lazy skink basks on a white granite boulder, soaking up the sun.
Then the vines appear – a patchwork of emerald, cushioned between the ancient folds of parched mountains, stunningly beautiful, euphonic to the soul. It's like stumbling across the Promised Land, the conquistador's El Dorado.
And now to drink that liquid gold. Each winery on the Boca Roja itinerary offers an element of surprise, a moment to savour: the architecturally astonishing glass-and-concrete compound of Monte Xanic; a musty tunnel leading to a private, candle-lit underground cellar at Encuentro Guadalupe; the aromatic notes of a coveted Nebbiolo from Bodegas Henri Lurton, the latest international venture from France's Chateau Brane-Cantenac.
Under the shade of a 100-year-old oak tree at Mina Penelope – a boutique organic winery producing less than 500 cases a year – I meet winemaker Veronica Santiago, who explains her methodology based on permaculture as she pours a selection of her experimental creations.
"What nature gives you every year, you want to keep that, you want to taste the soil, the temperature, the history," she says as I sip a surprisingly dry, flavoursome Montepulciano rosé. "Every year you have different conditions so I produce a different wine. Nature likes to throw curved balls at you – but I embrace the challenges."
A graduate of Adelaide University's Master of Viticulture and Oenology, Veronica is one of a new breed of locally born, internationally educated female winemakers making their mark on the Mexican wine industry. "With the growing presence of female winemakers, we're seeing a different dynamic and a change in the palette," she says. "There's a more feminine energy, with lighter, less acidic, lower-alcohol wines – it's definitely a change for the better."
This spirit of innovation and youthful exuberance is also evident in Valle de Guadalupe's exciting dining scene, celebrated for its farm-to-table ingredients, unorthodox techniques and, of course, pairings with local wines. Leading that charge is 29-year-old David Castro Hussong, recent recipient of Most Promising Chef at Mexico's version of the Michelins, the Gourmet Awards. An alumnus of NOMA and NYC's Eleven Madison Avenue, this Ensenada native (his family are the same Hussongs behind Baja's first cantina, opened in 1892) has had a spectacular homecoming, establishing the much-lauded Fauna at stunning Bruma winery.
"Here in Baja, gastronomic traditions are very young," Hussong tells me as he pours a glass of his cousin's homemade, wild organic mescal, concluding an inspired five-course tasting menu. "There isn't really an authentic way of doing things, we are creating this tradition, there are no rules, no wrong or right way of doing Baja cuisine."
A new tradition is also developing with Boca Roja Wine Adventures – saluting the sunset over the Pacific Ocean at spectacular Bar Bura. Located on the 850-hectare Cuatro Cuatros estate – a vineyard, glamping hotel and adventure playground featuring zip-lining, horseback riding and mountain-biking – this open-air cliffside bar offers cocktails, local wines and a creative Mexican menu with unrestricted views of the ocean and the wrinkled coastal range stretching to the north. As an essential stop on the way to the Tijuana border, the view is only matched by the party atmosphere as tipsy tourists, already buzzed by hours of wine-tasting, make the most of their final hours in Mexico.
Settle back on cushioned hay bales with a glass of Valle de Guadalupe red, and watch the orange fireball dip over the horizon – that's living la buena vida.
FIVE TOP EATS IN VALLE DE GUADALUPE
OLIVIA EL ASADOR DEL PROVENIR
After studying in Los Angeles, chef Giannina Gavaldon brought her passion for home-style Mexican cuisine back to Baja Norte. Her delectable menu utilises fresh ingredients from sea to garden, served in a cosy living room setting. See oliviaelasadordelporvenir.com
ORIGEN, ENCUENTRO GUADALUPE
Omar Valenzuela is another local graduate changing the culinary landscape at Encuentro Guadalupe's signature restaurant, Origen. Using produce from the hotel's two organic gardens, his philosophy is to respect the ingredient, but be irreverent of tradition. See grupoencuentro.com.mx
LA COCINA DE DONA ESTHELA
Packed to the rafters with locals and tourists on weekends, this humble kitchen serves "the tastiest breakfast in the world", according to Foodie Hub. Pork, beef and lamb (borrego) are literally farm-to-table, slow-cooked over coals and served with home-made tortillas.
LA GUERRERENSE, THE CEVICHE LADY
Sabina Bandera's ceviche food cart in Ensenada has garnered praise from the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who named La Guerrerense's ceviche tostadas, topped by homemade salsa, "the best street food on the planet". I concur. See laguerrerense.com
Using produce straight from the Mina Penelope farm and orchard, chef Robert Alcocer has developed a seasonal menu cooked in an adobe oven and complementing oenologist Veronica Santiago's organic wines. See minapenelope.com
Julie Miller travelled as a guest of the Ministry of Tourism of Baja California, Boca Roja Wine Adventures and Encuentro Guadalupe.
Delta Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne (via Sydney) to Los Angeles, with domestic transfers to San Diego. See delta.com
Accommodation at Encuentro Guadalupe starts from US$399 plus tax a night for a single loft, or US$1272 a night for the Eco House. See grupoencuentro.com.mx
A premium-package day trip from San Diego to Valle de Guadalupe with Boca Roja Wine Adventures costs US$155 a person including pick-up from San Diego, visits to three wineries, a gourmet tasting menu and a visit to Bar Bura. See bocarojawineadventures.com