Monday, November 26, 2007
Good Friends and Autumn Days in Baja California
by Steve Dryden
Sunday morning in the autumn season and I’m almost
alone here in my own private ashram at Destino del Vino, in northwestern Baja California, Mexico. In the spirit of this day,
the Lord’s Day, I’m reviewing an old book printed in 1932 called The Prophet. It contains the mystical words and
enlightening wisdom of Kahil Gibran. He’s communicating to me in terms I understand as a vineyard owner and winemaker.
He gracefully and elegantly reflects: “And in the autumn, when you gather the grapes of your vineyard for the wine press,
say in your heart, I too am a vineyard, and my fruit shall be gathered for the wine press, and like new wine I shall be kept
in eternal vessels. And, in winter when you draw the wine, let there be in your heart a song for each cup, and let there be
in the song a remembrance for the autumn days and for the vineyard and for the wine press.”
Last night, during a wedding event held at Vinisterra
winery in San Antonio de las Minas, while listening to one of my favorite songs, The
Girl from Ipanema, I sampled some wonderful new releases of wine. Lately I’m so busy working that I’ve missed
the finer things in life, so it was nice and refreshing to spend some quality time with friends, sharing “wild”
stories and unsurpassed hospitality.
Abelardo Rodriquez and his beautiful wife, Patricia
Macouzet, often host friends and special events at the winery. Moreover, they are two of the few folks in the Mexican wine
industry who fully understand hospitality, and they have the patience to provide basic wine education and local history to
inquiring visitors. They are masters in creating a refined and relaxed ambiance, a rare skill and treasured virtue in today’s
fast paced world.
The Rodriquez family has the advantage of being longtime
Baja California residents, with a family history of higher education and hospitality perfected by their grandfather, Abelardo
L. Rodriquez, interim President of Mexico from 1932-1934. President Rodriquez was well known for vastly improving Mexico’s
educational system, and he was a champion of the Mexican wine industry.
The senior Abelardo Rodriguez joined the Mexican Revolution
in 1913, and began moving up the ranks soon after. He became a colonel in 1916, and following his involvement in the Plan
de Agua Prieta he was named military commander of Northern Baja California in 1921. In 1923 he became governor of the territory
of Northern Baja California, and continued as both military commander and governor until 1929.
Some of his accomplishments as president included the
establishment of several financial institutions, the restoration of public education, and the implementation of laws related
to private charity and monopolies. He also lengthened the presidential term from four to six years.
After his presidential term ended, on November 30,
1934, Rodriguez returned to private life until 1943, when he was elected governor of his native Sonora, where he had a significant
impact on education. He promoted university education, establishing Sonora's state university.
As well, at one time he owned Baja California’s
Santo Tomas winery, where he is credited for bringing classic varietals of grapes into Mexico’s vineyards.
Thanks to Patricia and Abelardo, the Vinisterra winery
is known for hospitality and for creating some incredible wines. Their winemaker and co-owner, Christoph Gartner, is a Swiss-trained
enologist with a driving passion to create premier wines in Mexico. Some people think it’s unusual for Swiss to make
wine, but in fact the tradition of wine and viticulture in Switzerland is very old, at minimum going all the way back to the
The evidence of early Swiss winemaking and consumption
(wines were stored in ceramics) dates back to about 150 A.D. If you are “old” like myself, and you still have
some memory left, you might remember in the 1960’s a little old man known as the “Little Old Winemaker”
(with the voice of Jim Backus), from TV promotions by the Italian Swiss Colony wine producers. His favorite closing phrase
was "That little old winemaker... Me!"
This is not Christoph Gartner by any means! Christoph
is more comparable to biblical David, who challenges and conquers the giant, Goliath. To be more exact, he has slowly and
silently evolved into one of Mexico’s top winemakers. And he doesn’t boast or make false claims to be the “best”
-- he just does it! He simply creates fantastic wine, and is focused on using grape varietals from the southern Rhone valley
The southern Rhône sub-region is similar to Baja California’s
valleys, the Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Santo Tomas and Valle de San Vicente, all having a more Mediterranean climate with
mild winters and hot summers. Drought can be a problem in these areas, so drip irrigation is common. The southern Rhône's
most famous red wine is Châteauneuf du Pape, a blend containing up to 13 varieties of wine grapes, both red and white, as
permitted by the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC rules. Depending on the specific AOC rules, grapes blended into southern Rhône reds
may include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsaut. White wines from the southern Rhône sub-region, such as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
whites, are also typically blends of several wine grapes. These may include Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Clairette.
The Vinisterra winery has been designing their line
of premium wine over the last several years with many of their wines derived from southern Rhône varietals grown in Baja California.
During the last few months Vinisterra winery has been
introducing their 2004 Syrah/Mourverde, and their 2004 Grenache/Tempranillo, blends. Historically, Syrah is the only grape
used to make the famous Rhône wines of Côte Rotie and Hermitage, but it also forms the backbone of most Rhône blends, including
Although cultivated since antiquity, competing claims
to the origin of this variety gave credit to it either being transplanted from Persia, near the similarly-titled city of Shiraz,
or to being a native plant of France. Research completed at the University of California in Davis, and at the French National
Agronomy Archives in Montpellier, has proved that Syrah is indeed indigenous to France. Actually, DNA profiling proved Syrah
to be a genetic cross of two relatively obscure varieties, Mondeuse Blanc and Dureza.
More than half the world's Syrah acreage is planted
in France, but it is also a successful grape in Australia, South Africa, California, Washington and Baja California. Syrah
is a fairly new variety in California, Washington and Mexico, and is one of the most rapidly increasing varieties in these
regions. Syrah vines seem to love growing in Mexico because these vines require heat to get fully ripe, bud fairly late and
are considered mid-season ripeners. The berry is thick-skinned and dark, almost black, often allowing for intense wines, with
deep violet, sometimes nearly black in color, with a chewy texture, richness and spicy aromas.
Mourvèdre is a variety of red wine grape grown around
the world with some new and old vineyards planted in Mexico. In some parts of Europe and the New World it is known as Mataró,
Generally these vines produce tannic wines that can be high in alcohol, and are usually most successful in Rhone-style blends.
Mourverde blends well with Grenache and Syrah, softening and giving more structure to these varietals. Typically the tastes
of Mourverde grapes vary greatly according to area, but they often have a wild, gamey or earthy flavor, with soft red fruit
flavors. Recent DNA fingerprinting and research has shown that Monastrell is, in fact, the Graciano of Rioja. Mourvèdre is
widespread across the Mediterranean coast of southern France, where it is a notable component (like Syrah) of Châteauneuf
du Pape. It is sometimes used to produce a fortified red wine in Languedoc-Roussillon, and is being rediscovered in some older
vineyards and planted in new vineyards throughout Baja California.
Mourvèdre grapes often are very late to ripen, so ripening
is helped with stable weather often provided by proximity to a large body of water, such as the Mediterranean or the Pacific
Ocean. We’re fortunate here in this region of Mexico because our wine area is situated in a similar manner to the southern
Rhône Valley in France, very near to a large body of water.
Mourverde berries are medium-sized and blue-black in
color, with thick skins. The intense gamey quality of Mourvèdre is often improved by the rich fruit of Grenache and the structure,
spice, and power of Syrah. This fact just might be what inspired Christoph Gartner to create his latest amazing blend of Syrah
Vinisterra’s new 2004 Syrah/Mourvedre is a premium
wine that stands out among the best wines from Baja California. The label was conceived by Patricia Macouzet and drawn by
Tanya Denise Gulliver to reflect one particular evening in the Valle de San Antonio de las Minas.
The Sarah (67%) for this blend was harvested on September
2nd, at 24.5 brix, and is a blend from two distinct regions. The Mourverde (33%) was harvest later in the season on November
6th at 26 brix, and it is also a blend of grapes from two distinctive regions. All of the grapes used for this wine were grown
on the winery’s own five year old vineyards in Santo Tomas and San Antonio de las Minas, where they have 750 acres with
35 acres currently under cultivation. Christoph Gartner, the winemaker, actually manages the vineyards himself. This style
of intense and focused grape management is one important factor that allows him to provide such amazing wine. The primary
fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks, with secondary fermentation in French oak for 18 months, 50% of which was
new oak with no filtration of the wine.
This rich and complex blend of Syrah and Mourverde
is brilliant in jewel-like color with an elegant and delicate body, and soft tannins that provide a relaxed long-lingering
finish. Fruit forward blackberry and black currant fruit flavors with butterscotch, carmel, cocoa, coffee and leather on the
nose, well balanced acid and a slight hint of sweet vanilla wood. After decanting and about 45 minutes, the wine opens up
and settles down into rich licorice flavors and strong blackberry and black currant fruit aromas. The Mourverde adds some
spicy, savory structure that compliments the richness of the Syrah. The Syrah adds some black pepper, licorice, clove, thyme
with a slight hint of truffle. This high quality “classic” blend sells at the winery for $40 per bottle with a
10% case discount.
And, missing out on the 2004 Vinisterra Grenache /Termpranillo
blend, Christoph has created another stunning wine. It is deep purple in color with flavors of boysenberry, candied cherries,
red berries and hints of chocolate, cocoa, cloves, nutmeg with smooth and soft tannins mid-palate and on the finish. This
well balanced wine with refreshing aromas of red fruit, spices, white pepper and mocha is a great addition to the portfolio
of Vinisterra wines.
Patricia, Abelardo and I paired up both wines
with gourmet cheese produced here in Guadalupe Valley by Tito Cortez. The wedding party was kind enough to offer some fabulous
paella to highlight our evening. As I gazed out the window towards the wedding group I thought about blends of grapes coming
together in harmony, each bringing individual qualities that provide character, depth and richness. I realized that an artisan like Christoph Gartner is creating something like a marriage between grape varietals,
similar to the blend of individuals, unique people and families coming together in the marriage on the patio at Vinisterra.
Creating good wine and good love is similar to orchestrating classical music; you have to bring all the individual players
into harmony in order to produce a masterpiece. And, hopefully over time everything just gets better. I hope that happens
to the little old wine writer... me!
Steve Dryden, a MexiData.info guest columnist, is a wine, travel, Native Peoples and history writer for the Baja Times. Mr. Dryden also manages a new wine bar, Destino del Vino, at Km 88 on Highway 1 just south of Baja Mar. He can be reached at email@example.com.