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Garajistas, Amigos y Amor en Mexico

Posted: 03:37 PM ET, February 18, 2008

Some countries still remain off the wine radar screen for most people, even though they may be making some awesome wines. One that comes to mind is Israel. What a place! Some winemakers there are making some heartfelt, soulful wines. I still dream about a trip I made there in September 2006 with my wine-collecting friend Josh Latner, and we were blown away by the quality of a number of reds and whites we tasted. It is only going to get better there.

I had the same feeling, and maybe even more, a few weeks ago in Cancun, Mexico, when I tasted a range of wines from Baja California. Like Israel, Mexico has a special place in my heart. I love the country, culture, history and its people. Some of my dearest and closet friends are from Mexico. I spent a lot of my childhood surfing and fishing there.

But aside from all the heartfelt feelings for the country, there is a lot going on right now in its tiny wine world. About four years ago, I went to the Valle de Guadalupe, the main vine-growing area, about an hour southeast of Tijuana. Back then, a handful of serious wines existed, including the white and red from Casa de Piedra and a reserve Nebbiolo from La Cetto. But that was about it.

Today, there are a dozen or so people making some serious wines. In fact, there’s a sort of garage movement. Many of these people, with the original creators of Casa de Piedra, are hanging together and making small batches of cool wines. At least that’s what wine merchant Umberto Falcón of Mexico’s Vinoteca tells me. I am going to try to get down there in the next few months.

Anyway, we were chilling out in a small, hipster restaurant that an old buddy of mine owns in Puerto Morelos, just outside of Cancun. It’s called John Gray’s Kitchen. If you are in the area, check out his restaurant there, or the other one in Playa del Carmen. John is a supertalented chef, sourcing the best ingredients in the area and making no-nonsense, flavor-driven cuisine. I often wondered if he would have a Michelin star by now had he not left his burners in New York for the environs of Cancun. But he’s a beach guy and loves Mexico.

John put together an impromptu dinner/tasting for me, a few friends, Umberto, and frequent blog commenter, Frenchman and sommelier Ludovic Anacleto. Ludovic and Umberto work together. In fact, Ludovic organized the wines. (Gracias, hermano!) It was a cool evening as you can see from the video.

And it wasn’t as easy as you think to organize. Elections were being held the night of the tasting, so, technically John couldn’t serve wine in his restaurant. Don’t ask me why, but those were the rules. However, John devised an ingenious way to beat the system: He closed his restaurant early, and we had John Gray’s Kitchen all to ourselves. It only added to the experience.

Below are some of the wines we tasted (drank). All were consumed non-blind. Most are not available in the United States, but if you get to Mexico, tienes que buscarlos. You have to look for them.

2007 Sinergi VT, Marella, Valle de Guadalupe, Sauvignon Blanc: Pretty white that reminds me of a top dry white Bordeaux with melon, citrus fruit and cream on the nose and palate. Full yet balanced and fresh. 90 points, non-blind. www.sinergi-vt.com

2005 Adobe Guadalupe, Gabriel, Valle de Guadalupe: I like the aromas of rose petal and cherries. Full-bodied yet balanced and very clean with vanilla and fruit on the finish. Lovely tannins. Racy. Better in a couple of years. From Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. 90 points, non-blind. www.adobeguadalupe.com

2005 Mariatinto, Mariatinto, Valle de Guadalupe & Valle de Santo Tomas & Valle de San Vicente: This is a little rustic, with strawberry jam and vanilla character. A little too much for me. Spread it on toast? Full and jammy. From Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Grenache. 86 points, non-blind. www.mariatinto.com

2005 Casa de Piedra & Wente, Contraste, Valle de Guadalupe & Livermore: This is a bi-national wine made with Mexican and American grapes. Sort of fun, but who cares? Attractive but sort of banal aromas of blackberries and toasted oak, hints of dark chocolate. Full and soft. I am not that excited. From Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 86 points, non-blind. www.vinoscasadepiedra.com

2005 Sinergi VT, Enzo B Side, Valle de Guadalupe-Llano Colorado: Wonderful aromas of blackberries and vanilla follow through to a full and thick, velvety wine that is still balanced. From Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah. Best after 2008. 90 points, non-blind.

2005 Sinergi VT, Icaro, Valle de Guadalupe-Llano Colorado: I have had other bottles of this from other vintages. This was slightly disappointing; it had ripe and rich fruit, but I couldn’t get my head around the rubbery undertones. Still, it was round and rich. From Nebbiolo and Petite Sirah. 84 points, non-blind.

2006 Viñedos Malagon, Malagon Reserva de Familia, Valle de Guadalupe: Wow. What a wine! This has soul, baby. It is very decadent and luscious with black fruits, game, and hints of vanilla. It’s full body with velvety tannins and a finish that lasts for minutes. Que rico! Don’t wait. Drink it. Grenache, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 92 points, non-blind.

2005 VinĂ­cola Tres Valles, Kojaa, Valle de Guadalupe: This is a hell of wine. Reminds me of a Turley Syrah, but with a little more finesse. Lots of blackberry, asphalt and black pepper aromas and flavors. Full and velvety textured with fabulous, untcious fruit, ripe tannins and a long flavorful finish. Am I in love? 92 points, non-blind. From Petite Sirah. www.vinostresvalles.com

2004 VinĂ­cola Torres Alegre y Familia, Cru Garage, 100 percent Grenache, Valle deGuadalupe: Not sure if this is a perfect bottle, because it came across a bit dull. Pleasing strawberry jam aromas and flavors. Full and velvety. 84 points, non-blind.

2004 Casa Madero, Casa Grande Parras Esate, Valle de Parras: This is rich and spicy, with jammy and peppery fruit character. Full and round. A little monolithic but impressive fruit. 89 points, non-blind. www.madero.com.mx