Thursday, December 15, 2011

Baja wine, making big strides

Very few people know this, but Mexico was actually the first place in the new world where wine was made. The first winery in the new world was “Santa Maria de las Parras”, in the north central state of Cohauila, and even today it operates as Casa Madero.

For Mexicans until recent generations, wines have been a thing you use for cooking Christmas dinners and not much else. Famous brands like Pedro Domecq and Padre Kino where regulars at supermarket stands but nobody dared to drink them, wine as simple, bad, and for cooking.

All of that changed in the early 1990´s, wineries realized that there was a market in the new emerging middle class of Mexico, and started the first efforts to make drinkable wines. Brands like Monte Xanic, Sto Tomas, LA Cetto, Domecq, started to make pretty decent wines that while still amateurish in nature, found a domestic market eager to consume home made wine. In the late 1990s, we started to see the first small scale boutique wines, names like Mogor Badan, Bibayoff, Chateau Camou, Vino de Piedra, and others where the first wineries who pushed for creating wine that was not only drinkable, but very good. Results where mixed, some years some winemakers created good to very good wines, and other years it was drinkable again. This past decade, we have seen wineries in Baja jump from maybe a dozen, to at least 50 labels and growing. And after 20yrs of hard work, i can honestly say some wines are simply outstanding. I have tried some Guadalupe Valley cabernets that could easily compete with some of the top Napa names, and quality keeps rising and breaking old rules.

Another interesting aspect of Baja wines is their style, instead of the typical one grape wines from america, or the traditional french blends, you see a lot more experimentation with different grapes here. Grapes like Nebbiolo, Petit Sirah, Mission, Carignan, and other not so popular grapes in the americas, are widely used here for winemaking. The results are interesting wines, and lately because of the hard work of the winemaking community, complex and unique. Other wine regions are starting to come alive all over the place, wine growing vines have moved from the traditional Guadalupe Valley, to Ojos Negros and other valleys, and theres plans for making wine in the Vizcaino desert in the southern Baja peninsula in the not so distant future.

Here are some top brands that are making good wine here in Baja:

Santo Tomas: A long time value winemaker who has struggled to create high end wines. if you stick to their traditional wines like Tempranillo, Tempranillo-Cab, or Barbera, you can't lose.

LA Cetto: The biggest producer in Mexico has been accused on selling mainly quaffable wine, but not any more, Cetto has been pumping pretty decent wine lately, and even their low end labels are making heads turn. Try their Petit Sirah, their 2010 Chenin Blanc, and you will see.

Baron Balche: Mexico's most expensive wines come from this winery. Some of their wines are superb yet in my opinion, overpriced, but if you put price aside, some of their wines like their 2012 Syrah can show you what the future of Baja holds.

Casa Baloyan: This is one of the newest wineries, and also one making perhaps the best wine ever made in Mexico at a decent price. Try their 2008 vino tres tintos @ $275 pesos and be ready to become a mexican wine lover, not to miss is also their 2007 reserva Cabernet Sauvignon @ $585 pesos and taste the best damn cab you can find in northamerica outside of Cali and Washington.

Other names: Emeve, Montefiori, Roganto, San Rafael, Pijoan, and many others.

© Jesus Chavez – 2011 all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Baja cuisine, is there really such a thing? it sure is

Ahhhhh Baja! four words that evoke visions of long and empty stretches of beaches, deserts, cactus, sun, and yes, food. What is Baja cuisine? does such a concept truly exists? and if it exists, how do you define it? how can you tell it appart from regular Mexican food. Not an easy awnser for local chefs yet, so its definately not an easy task for someone who is not from Baja. Since theres a lot of things still evolving in the concept of Baja cuisine, i wont bother with those things that are still a work in progress, i will only work on those that more or less are universally accepted by those involved in this "birth of a cuisine".

To begin with, i should first tell you a little about baja. Baja is a long peninsula that is barely attached to the Mexican mainland. Because of its isolation, tt has the feeling of an island, and its people have a very distinct way of life and culture that separates it from anything you see in central Mexico. The southern half of the state of California and northern Baja California in Mexico are the only other areas of Mediterranean climate in the northern hemisphere. So Baja is often described as the mediterranean of Mexico. Betwen 1683 and 1834,  the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Dominican missionaries, established a series of religious outposts in order to spread the Christian doctrine among the local natives. They introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry to the region. Life in Baja is simple, laid back, and that reflects itself on the local cuisine. Unlike the more complex cuisine of central Mexico, the food in Baja is focused on fresh ingredients and seasonal herbs, vegetables, and an incredible assortment of seafood provided by the Sea of Cortez, and the Pacific ocean. Basic Baja ingredients are: Olive oil, basil, flour tortillas, tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, fish, scallops, clams, lamb, tuna, octopus, wine, cheese, dates, figs, lobster, shrimp, mantarray, and mediterranean herbs.

When did the concept of Baja cuisine start?

Nobody truly knows, but it most likely started decades ago in the food stands and carts all along the peninsula. This is where fish tacos where born, lobster burritos, stuffed clams, seafood tostadas, caguama stews, and many more vintage classics of Baja cuisine. Right from the start the difference betwen Baja cuisine and the cuisine of central Mexico was evident. Freshness and quality of the ingredients was a hallmark, i mean, why mess with a great piece of fish or a perfect lobster by adding a complex sauce? i can imagine the local fishermen grilling fresh fish on a grill, and then eating it with freshly made flour tortillas and a mexican salsa prepared on the spot.

Probably in the late 1980´s or early 1990´s, we started to see the firsts chefs that actually started to use the term "Baja food", the concept then was as thin as morning fog, but it basically introduced the idea to the people of Baja. At about the same time, there was a push from the vitners of the Guadalupe Valley in Ensenada to improve the quality of local wine, and it didn't take long for those two groups (the chefs and the vitners) to see the potential of a partnership that pushed for better wines, and the development of a formal Baja cuisine. The main thing here, is that people embraced the concept and ran with it. Soon young chefs started to depart abroad to study in europe and the united states, and came back with professional skills not to cook recipes from France or Italy, but to cook using locally available ingredients, using a mix of european and traditional mexican cooking methods. The results, expanded minds, and gave birth to a new cuisine. Names like Martin San Roman, Benito Molina, Javier Plasencia, Jair Tellez, and many others, became the first culinary celebrities of Baja. Their restaurants are now known all over Baja, and have inspired a new generation of young chefs that are ready to expand the cuisine even further.

For now, the cuisine is a baja version of mediterranean cuisine, that uses mexican and mediterranean ingredients, with a touch of asian influence. Why asian? just look at the Chinese colony in Mexicali and La Paz, and read a little about the influences left my Japanese fishermen who visited the ports of Baja.

This is a short story of the cuisine, and in the following months i will go into more details about the influences, the ingredients, the chefs, and yes, the great recipes.

© Jesus Chavez – 2011 all rights reserved

Tuesday, September 2, 2008