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Mexico may not be the first place most people think of when it comes to wine, but over the last 20 years the wine industry in Baja California has grown exponentially, with local vintners turning out bottles that are starting to put the region on the global winemaking map.The majority of Baja’s production is located in the Guadalupe Valley. The valley, which lies just 22 miles northeast of Ensenada, is about 14 miles long and is home to over 100 vineyards of varying sizes, from large-scale wineries like L.A. Cetto, to boutique operations like Monte Xanic, Vena Cava and La Lomita. Interest in the valley, both for its bright and rocky landscape and the unexpected wines it produces, has brought a boom in tourism. Design hotels and high-quality farm-to-table restaurants abound, making the valley a hot spot for food and wine enthusiasts.

While the Guadalupe Valley receives most of the press and tourism, Ojos Negros, a hidden gem just 25 miles east of Ensenada, is worthy of attention too. Heading east, the main road climbs and curves up towards the foothills of Sierra Nevada de Juarez, the nearby mountain range and water source for the valley. The climate resembles that of the high desert, with hot days and cold nights. This fertile valley was used almost exclusively for ranching and farming until about 16 years ago, when Ricardo Hussong decided to dedicate a small part of his ranch to a new adventure: wine.

Ricardo Hussong’s great-grandfather Johann (John) Hussong emigrated from Germany to New York City in 1886 at age 23. After a few years he made his way west to San Francisco and then onto San Diego. In 1889 he settled in Ensenada, where he supplied provisions to the nearby El Álamo mine. After just a few years, in 1891, Hussong bought a bar/cantina in Ensenada. The following year, due to a noise complaint, he moved the cantina across the street, where it still operates today. Hussong’s Cantina is the oldest bar in Baja California and the birthplace of the margarita, created in 1941 by bartender Don Carlos Orozco for the then German ambassador’s daughter, Margarita Henkel. Today the cantina, now run by Ricardo, remains largely unchanged, from the sawdust on the floor to the laidback vibe of locals enjoying a beer or margarita. While they are best known for the Cantina, the Hussongs – as well as the Maymes, Ricardo’s wife’s family – have farmed and ranched in the Ojos Negros valley for decades.

Bodegas San Rafael was the first winery in the valley and the pet project of the Hussong/Maymes family. Led by the passion and instinct of Don Ricardo, in 2000 the family bought 12,000 vines of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot from a winery in Guadalupe Valley. To the surprise of many, 95 percent of the plants survived the first year. In 2003 Bodegas San Rafael harvested its first crop of grapes and produced eight barrels of experimental wine. By 2005 they had launched their first label, a Bordeaux-style blend called Meritage Passion. The wine was well received internationally, winning gold medals from the Artisans Awards (San Francisco) and the China Wines California Wines awards (San Francisco) for its 2007 and 2009 vintages.

Today, the vineyard occupies more than 30 hectares and is planted with 15 varietals: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, syrah, tempranillo, carignan, pinot noir, sangiovese, zinfandel, riesling, sauvignon blanc, viognier and chenin blanc. This year Bodegas San Rafael will produce about 60,000 bottles, which will be sold almost exclusively to the Mexican market, the majority going to Mexico City and Guadalajara.

We recently had the chance to talk to Ludwig Hussong, winemaker for Bodegas and one of Ricardo’s three sons, about this year’s harvest and future projects for the winery.

When will harvest start this year?

Harvest started at the beginning of September which is late for Baja. The climate in Ojos Negros is different from the rest of the valleys around Ensenada; our winter is a bit longer, and we get late frost all the way out in May, so the vines have acclimated to a later cycle.

Bodegas San Rafael in Ojos Negros, photo courtesy of Bodegas San RafaelWhat are your plans for the grapes this year?

This year we are fermenting our usual white varietals (riesling, sauvignon blanc, viognier and chenin blanc) for our white wine “Delirio.” It’s a field blend, and we harvest the grapes together to produce this very limited (200 cases) semi-sweet wine.“Euphoria,” our lighter red, is 100 percent pinot noir. It is made with very little maceration and only four months of contact with oak to maintain the fruit forwardness and delicacy of this varietal. We will continue to produce the flagship “noble” varieties of cabernet sauvignon and merlot that go into our premium Ojos Negros labels as single varietal wines and out of which the best barrels go into our staple label, Passion Meritage. As far as new projects go, we are excited to be harvesting the first crops of sangiovese and zinfandel that were planted four years ago.

Do you have plans for any new wines this year?

We’re looking forward to making our Super Tuscan-style wine with our own sangiovese. We have been making this label for a couple of years now but have been buying sangiovese from “El Tule” and blending it with our own merlot. For this 2016 harvest, the blend will be 100 percent from Ojos Negros, same with zinfandel, which we have been getting from a vineyard in Guadalupe in the past. And there is one little project of 180 liters of sparkling rosé from pinot noir, but that’s just for fun and personal use.

Can you tell us a bit about the annual August event that takes places in the area and your family’s role this year?

We participate in the “Noche de Cofradia” every year. The Cofradia is a social club of 21 members; each member, individual or family plays an important part in pulling this grand event together. This year, my father was the Gran Maestre/President of the organization, and as such, our family’s role was to oversee the event. We host about 2,000 people from all over the country and even some international guests. The idea is to showcase our region’s talent in the areas of wine and food and create a working dynamic between people in the industry. We organize a food and wine pairing competition where more than 40 restaurants and wineries team up to create the perfect pairing. Our panel of judges is comprised of recognized chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs and gourmands from all over the world.

What are the stylistic influences on the Bodegas wines?

I think we have changed and continue to do so as our knowledge in winemaking is enriched and our taste buds develop, and there are also trends that come and go and that we tend to follow to some extent… but the original concept for our wines got its inspiration from France. My parents are definite Francophiles, and my brothers and I were strongly influenced. I think our personal style has been fruit forwardness, keeping wines fresh and not overdoing it, trying to really showcase the terroir of our beloved Ojos Negros, where against the odds, the vision of one Mr. Ricardo Hussong came to life and which is now an up and coming area for wine production. So proud!

Why is the Ojos Negros climate and geography unique, and how does it influence the wines you make? What are the main differences between Guadalupe Valley and Ojos Negros, and how are they expressed in the wines from each area?

Location, location, location… Ojos Negros is 2,400 feet above sea level and has a very unique climate. The high desert conditions keep it dry and cool and protect the grapes from many types of molds and fungus. The Sierra de Juarez is our main water source, and it provides the valley with unmatched water quality. We enjoy a diversity of soils from clay to silt that provide playfulness and versatility. I think it’s difficult to compare, but one thing I’ve always been excited about in Ojos Negros is that the conditions and water quality allow each variety of grapes planted to express its typicality.

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