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Last Updated: Monday, 2 January 2006, 01:18 GMT
Mexico's 'boutique wine' renaissance
By Matthew Wells
In Baja California, Mexico

The school band practises noisily outdoors in the sleepy town of Porvenir, where olive trees line the dusty roads.

Barrels of wine held on wooden racks
Some people are calling the place the "next Napa valley"
Directly opposite, there is a school of a different kind, where locals are learning the true value of the grape vines that festoon the landscape in the beautiful but rugged Valley of Guadalupe.

Wine arrived in Baja along with the Spanish colonial-era priests.

But the collapse of trade barriers since the late 1980s, opened up Mexico's small wine industry to foreign competition, and the market began to wither.

Some wild enthusiasts are calling this place the "next Napa Valley" - a reference to the hugely profitable centre of the Californian wine business.

But though the climate is similar, locals are unconvinced it can ever attain that growth, or whether they even want it to.

"The wine industry is going through a renaissance in Mexico," says Don Miller, one of the few foreign wine-makers in the area, who has moved lock, stock and barrel to Baja.

Boutique wineries

This former Californian banker runs an upmarket inn and equestrian centre, alongside his large winery.

But the more profound development is happening on a smaller-level: through the wine school.

If this region were to have no problems with water, without a doubt we would be growing 10 times faster
Josef Backhoff
Monte Xanic winery
There is a realisation that micro-managed, boutique wineries can make a profit and draw discerning tourists to the area.

"You can see 20 people making wine here on any particular day," says Phil Gregory, who has just started to enjoy the heady flavours of his first mini-harvest, down at the school.

Local schoolteacher Juan Carlos Bravo was one of several small-scale producers who brought some of his latest crop along to a tasting at Phil's newly-completed and locally crafted guest house.

Until he attended the wine school, Juan Carlos was going to tear-up his mature Carignan vines. Now he will produce around 7,000 bottles of wine this year instead.

The best known organic producer in the valley is Dona Lupe, whose grapes nestle alongside the country's largest winery, LA Cetto - which even has its own bullring for special festivals.

Water problem

"We have a great neighbour," says Daniel Yi Cordova of Dona Lupe, talking diplomatically about the US, and California.

"At the same time, they are very monopolistic. They only allow two bottles per person to cross the border... they should let people have the choice."

Phil Gregory, wine enthusiast
Phil Gregory is enjoying his first mini-harvest
Protectionist measures are not the biggest problem faced by the growing wine industry in the valley.

The Mexican government levies taxes of 40% per bottle, making it hard to compete with the more traditional beverages of choice - beer and tequila.

Wine-lovers in Mexico City have only recently started choosing native wines over French or Chilean, but the reputation for reliable quality at home - and abroad - is growing.

Unlike other countries, Mexico has not subsidised its wine industry, although a recent visit by President Vicente Fox gave everyone in the valley cause for hope.

Perhaps the biggest factor that will limit development is water scarcity.

As the local port city of Ensenada grows, it is sucking water supply away from the grape vines, and other rural activities.

"If this region were to have no problems with water, without a doubt we would be growing 10 times faster," says Hans Josef Backhoff, 28, whose father is one of the partners in the medium-sized Monte Xanic winery.

Bottles of Mexican wine
More Mexicans are choosing to drink native wines

They have just opened a brand new wine storage area which will hold 4,000 barrels of red, white and rose.

With its mass of twisting pipes and roaring machinery, blasted out of a mountainside, it looks like a villain's lair from an old James Bond movie.

Following President Fox's visit, the heavens opened and it rained heavily, causing many vintners to joke about divine intervention by presidential decree.

But the valley is fast approaching a critical point of development, where the resources will be unable to keep pace with demand.

"They say this is like the Napa of 50 years ago, but have you gone there recently? No thank you!" says one of the region's most established wine-makers, Abelardo Rodriguez.

He shuns the current Napa Valley culture of high-priced tastings and rampant tourism.

"There are too many there. Here it is still calm and very beautiful."


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