Friday, August 19, 2016

Tasting in Tecate: Wine, Not Beer

Mexican wine is coming onto the radar of wine lovers, thanks in part to its ambassadors, surging wine tourism and the remarkable efforts of Mexican winemakers. To reach Tecate, a small, charming city about an hour’s drive south of San Diego, take the mountainous road that twists and climbs nearly a half-mile above sea level through rugged Baja California terrain. Famed for its beers for most of the 20th century, new-century Tecate has given birth to a vibrant wine culture and local winemaking scene that will intrigue sip-seeking visitors.

Upper: These wine glasses will soon be filled with delicious Mexican wines. Lower: Arriving guests are greeted at Rancho La Puerta’s La Cocina Que Canta culinary center.

To spotlight seven Tecate wineries, the nearby Rancho La Puerta fitness and spa retreat threw a brunch•wine•bazar tasting and lunch on a late-July sun- and fun-filled Saturday at its La Cocina Que Canta cooking school and culinary center. Inside the center’s massive teaching kitchen, guests tasted white, pink and red wines from Tecate and other Valle de Guadalupe producers, accompanied by a Mediterranean-Mexican medley of olives, cheeses, breads and herbed antipasti.

Upper: Grilled figs – as delicious as they are beautiful. Lower: The table at Rancho La Puerta hints at the colorful, tasty lunch to follow.

After tasting more than a dozen eye-opening wines and chatting with the many winemakers who attended, visitors shuffled out to the resort’s 6-acre organic garden where Chef Denise Roa led an inspiring and energetic tour. As she sprinted through the garden in her red clogs, a large sprig of verdant green basil bounced from the chef’s sleeve pocket. Her passion for food and fresh, organic, plant-based cuisine was on display as she plunged her hands into the earth to pull out a bright carrot she rocked under our noses, peeled and sliced fresh tomatillos for us to savor and crushed lemon basil leaves between her fingers to release their captivating aromas.

Upper: Chef Denise Roa smiles after pulling this carrot from the organic garden at Rancho La Puerta. Lower: The sous chef offers a taste of bright yellow tomatoes.

With a stop to shop at the culinary center’s small shop, the tour was followed by lunch at a long colorful table. We chose the refreshing and tasty Ulloa rosé of Nebbiolo to pair with the range of dishes that included seafood and corn tostadas, clams, potatoes, fennel, salad and garden vegetables, risotto and salmon.

Upper: Refreshing Ulloa rosé of Nebbiolo. Lower: Cool herbed water is served at Rancho La Puerta's July brunch•wine•bazar event.

As dish after dish arrived, we were immersed in the flavors and textures of Mexican heritage elements, cleanly prepared to allow their distinct, full flavors to sing. Instead of obscuring the earthy core of her cuisine with cream, butter and heavy salting, Chef Roa’s creations tasted bright and explosive, sometimes accompanied by a tangy tomato jam or a savory yet simple pesto of olive oil, the garden’s lemon basil and almonds.

Upper: Chef Roa slices a prickly pear at Rancho La Puerta. Lower: A visitor sniffs a fresh leek from the Rancho Tres Estrellas organic farm.

Some of the other noteworthy wines enjoyed on our visit were the 2014 Monte Xanic Sauvignon Blanc, oak-kissed 2014 L.A. Cetto Reserva Privada Chardonnay, 2013 Emeve Malbec, international varietal wines by Veramendi, Herencia 2013 Tempranillo, red blends and rosé by Bodegas F. Rubio and the 2012 Ulloa Cabernet-Grenach-Petite Sirah blend. Wine lovers can expect more excitement for Mexican winemaking as enologists and winemakers learn more about the region’s terroir and as the vines mature.

Upper: Ready to pour at the tasting booth of Veramendi, a female-led multigenerational Tecate winery. Lower: A selection of Mexican whites at Rancho La Puerta’s brunch•wine•bazar event.

Give these and other Mexican wines a swirl. Still tough to find, your best bet might be wine shops or restaurants that specifically feature Mexican wines. In the San Diego area, The Wine Bank offers a wide selection or consider trying a few selections at Javier Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina de Raíz restaurant.

Sections of the border fence are visible in the rocky terrain surrounding the Rancho Tres Estrellas organic farm.

The next brunch•wine•bazar event is scheduled for November 20th and is sure to fill up early. The $180 per person fee includes round-trip bus transportation from the East Mission Bay Visitor’s Center, garden tour, shopping and lunch at the La Cocina Que Canta culinary center. Bring your passport, comfortable walking shoes and an appetite for culinary and wine adventure. ¡Buen provecho!