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Try The Under Appreciated Wines Of Mexico At Rick Bayless's New Leña Brava

By John Lenart in Food on Jul 26, 2016 2:40PM

Leña Brava. Photo Credit Galdones Photography

When you think about wines from Sicily or Alsace that have been produced in a region for centuries, you just know that they pair with the local cuisine perfectly. It's no accident. Winemakers have used the time to make wines that taste good with the local foods, and local chefs create dishes that pair with the wines. A few decades go by and boom: You have classic parings.

The funny thing is, while the food from Mexico is just as regionally diverse as the food from Italy or Spain, when confronted with a menu of one of the many regional Mexican cuisines, diners often turn to beer or cocktails made from mescal or tequila. Sure, many might say it's because they are the drinks of the region, but the fact is, in Baja Mexico wine has been part of the cuisine for over 400 years.

“Many people don't realize this, but the oldest winery in North America is actually located in Mexico,” Jill Gubesch, wine director for Rick Bayless' restaurant group, told Chicagoist. Gubesch has been pouring wines from Mexico for years at Topolobampo, and recently Bayless charged her with dedicating an entire section of the wine list for the newly opened, Baja-focused, Leña Brava, to wines from Baja, more specifically from the Valle De Guadalupe.

Located just 90 miles south of San Diego (No further than Napa is from San Francisco) winemakers in “el Valle” as it's locally called, have had hundreds of years of growing and tweaking to make wines that pair wonderfully with the cuisine of Baja.

The results of these centuries of work in the vineyards and cellars of “el Valle” shows in the parings. “I think these wines go better with the Baja cuisine than anything I've ever paired them with. There's something special about the cuisine at Leña Brava because it's a very different part of Mexico,” said Gubesch.

But sourcing these wines is no small task. Gubesch explains, “It's a really difficult thing to bring these wines in. No distributors carry these wines because production is really low. Some of these producers make 200 cases of wine.” Combine that with the fact that over 80 percent of the production gets bought up by Mexico City and that, much like Napa and Sonoma, drought conditions continue to cause declining yields, sourcing these wines is a serious effort.

Only after working with a vast group of importers, distributors and delivery sources do the wines finally arrive at Leña Brava. “It's almost a separate full-time job,” Gubesch said. “These wines aren't on the list just because they come from Mexico. It represents the top wines Mexico has to offer.”

Gubesch is very careful in sourcing these wines. Just because it's from the right region doesn't mean it's good. In fact, she and Bayless had to learn about Mexican wines the hard way.

“When I first started tasting what we could get our hands on, it wasn't the best examples of Mexican wine and I remember thinking 'Oh my god, is Rick [Bayless] going to make me put this on the list?' And then he and I were tasting and he was like 'Well that's just awful.' I was so relieved. And then when we got our hands on more we tasted Casa de Piedra and it showed me wow, they are making great wines in Mexico.”

So what are the wines of “el Valle” like? They tend to be lighter-bodied, have softer tannin and brighter fruit than in many regions of the world. But what's really cool about these wines is the terroir often presents a pronounced salinity, kind of like albariño on steroids.

The wines of “el Valle” that excite Gubesch the most are “The Casa de Piedra," she said, "because it was the first winery that showed me that they were making great wine in Mexico.”

During our interview I had the opportunity to taste some wines from “el Valle.”

First up was the 2014, Casa de Piedra, Piedra del Sol, Bianco. Gubesch called this unoaked chardonnay “The Chablis of Mexico.” Super bright and slightly silvery in color this wine has a delicate nose of green apple and fresh lemon with a hint of minerality and that distinctive salinity. The texture is slightly creamy from aging on the lees with flavors of apple, salt and a spicy nutmeg finish. If you think you don't like chardonnay this might be the one for you.

Next was the 2015, Casa Magoni Manaz Bianco. A blend of viognier and fiano, this wine smells of over ripe melon and lanolin with a flavor of apricot, orange zest, and again, that classic salinity.

Of course there are red wines too, including some unique blends. Gubesch explained, “One of the other unique things is the blends. They are blending zinfandel, cabernet, and nebbiolo. It's not classic blends.” Nor are the flavors always typical of the variety. She says, “You need to lose all of your preconceived notions about what these varietals taste like because they don't taste like Cab from Northern California or anywhere else in the world. They're very specific to Mexico.”

Now, I'm not saying you should look past the world class spirits list at Leña Brava, but when it comes time to think about wine, flip to that page of the wine list that says “Wines of Valle De Guadalupe” and you'll be drinking wines particular to the local cuisine of Baja.

With producers like Adobe Guadalupe and Casa de Piedra making some stunning wines, the entire “el Valle” wine region is experiencing incredible growth. Jill said, “I first visited el Valle in 2001 when I put together the very first Mexican wine page here [at Topolobampo]. Back then there were maybe 15 wineries or less. Today there are over 120 bonded wineries in el Valle.”

A short 90 minute drive along the beautiful Pacific coast from San Diego has me thinking my next wine vacation just might be to Mexico. But in the meantime, I'll make do with the food and wine of Baja at Leña Brava.