Mexico / Baja California  / Santo Tomás
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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Bodegas de Santo Tomás

Überblick über die Bodega Santo Tomás
View of the Bodega Santo Tomás
Bewässerung der Rebestöcke
Irrigation oft he vines
Französische Eichenfässer in Mexiko
French oak barrels in Mexico
Stilvolle Architektur in gehaltvoller Umgebung
Stylish architecture surrounded by fine wines

A brief history of wine from the Valleys of Baja

Think of warm sunny days and cool nights, rich sandy soil with somewhat arid conditions yet just enough moisture in the air to seal in the juices of the vine. You might be talking about the Rhone region of southeast France or maybe the renowned valleys of Napa and Sonoma. If you thought California you were close but it’s not the California often associated with fine wines. You have to shift your mindset south, across the border into Mexico and 140 km / 90 miles further on scenic Highway 1 to the valleys surrounding Ensenada, Baja California.

Mexico is by no means new to wine production, the oldest winery  still in operation in the Americas, Casa Madero, is located in the state of Coahuila Mexico, being established in 1597. The first grapevines in California were planted by Jesuit Father Juan de Ugarte in 1701 at the mission of San Javier in what is ow Baja California Sur. One of many mission vineyards Father Juan de Ugarte established on his journeys from Puebla to Baja. The missions and the grapevines made their way north, and in 1791, near present-day Ensenada, Dominican José Loriente established Misión Santo Tomás de Aquino. Taking notice of the optimum conditions, the enterprising missionaries established here the most sophisticated vineyards and produced enough wine to trade it with whalers. The Jesuits in the South exported their wine to other missions and settlers of California, Baja and Alta.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Mexico it was up to the Franciscans  and later the Dominicans to Christianize the natives. The orders, in their wake, attracted secular clergy to the region, and a priest of the latter group in 1834 established the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte and its  ineyard. This was the last and shortest occupied mission of the Californias. By 1840 a revolt by the indigenous Kumeyaii forced the priests to abandon the mission. Just northeast of Ensenada, this valley is still known today as Valle de Guadalupe.

In 1857 the new Constitution with the Reform Laws dealt a severe blow to the Catholic Church. Under this legislation set forth under the administration of President Benito Juárez, the church had to relinquish almost all of its property. The vineyards of Santo Tomás were sold to Don Loreto Amador and later surchased by two business men, who in 1888 established Bodegas de Santo Tomas, California’s oldest winery.

In those days the majority of wine production came from a low  acid grape known as Mission Grape. Things changed little in the valleys until 1904 when a group of Russian pacifist known as Molokans purchased land in the Valle de Guadalupe. About 100 families, leaving Russia to escape the draft by the Czar’s army, moved into the Valley of Guadalupe, established a community (which still exists) and began cultivation of the valley. Among other, they planted grapevines, reestablishing wine production in this valley. As more settlers came into the valley, they followed the Russians‘ lead and more vineyards began to appear. By the mid 1930’s the valley saw a large influx of displaced land squatters and many of the Russian families moved away, but the vines remained. Large vineyards were established and major names in Mexican wines emerged to join the already established Bodegas de Santo Tomas.

The wine-growing area around Ensenada consists of three valley regions; Valle de Guadelupe, Santo Tomás and San Vicente. Though growing grapes has not been a problem in Baja, wine consumption in Mexico is considerably low. Brandy by far was king of the wine spirits, and among the brandies of Baja, Pedro Domecq’s Presidente Brandy became the largest selling brandy in the world. Grape production in the region was quantity vs. quality and wine production techniques were of antiquated and poor standards. Wine was far from high priority in Baja and the subsequent wine was of good quality at best in spite of the Mediterranean conditions and that rare combination of weather and soil that can produce premium wines.

The hot summers and cool nights with breezes from the Pacific plus the geography of the region gives each valley its individual microclimates that, along with soil characteristics, allows for a wide range of varietals including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Barbera, Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Nibbiolo, Zinfandel and even Tempranillo. Bodegas de Santo Tomas cultivates vineyards in all three of these valleys, enabling this winery to harvest the highest quality grapes from the entire growing region. By and large the wineries of this region rely on the French concept of terroir for the selection of their grapes. Interesting too, the Bordeaux-style of wine producing has a strong influence in these valleys, several of the winemakers hold degrees from that prestigious University. All of these factors add up to Baja soon adding the names of its valleys, like Valle de Guadalupe and Santo Tomás, to the list of the elite such as Napa, Sonoma, Barossa and the Rhone.

The Bodegas de Santo Tomas have vineyards in all three of Northern Baja’s wine regions, but the majority of its vineyards are found in the Valle de Santo Tomás. Founded by the Dominicans in 1751, the vineyards of Santo Tomás were expropriated by the Mexican government in 1857 and handed to Don Loreto Amador.

In 1888 two enterprising men, ex-gold miner Don Francisco Andonegui and his friend Don Miguel Ormart, purchased the former Dominican vineyards from Don Loreto Amador and so established Bodegas de Santo Tomas. During those first years the wine was sold in bulk to the region’s settlements. Soon after the new century the center of operations was moved to the city of Ensenada at the corner of Primera and Gastélum. This was the company’s first headquarters outside of the valley itself.

The Bodegas was purchased by former President of the Republic of Mexico, Don Abelardo L. Rodríguez, in the 1920’s. Under his control the winery went through considerable expansion, and in 1934 he moved the warehouse bottling plant to its present location at Miramar No. 666 in the center of Ensenada. Here the museum and tasting room are still found and offer tours and wine tasting open to the public.

In the 1960’s the Bodegas de Santo Tomas was sold to the consortium Grupo Pando. The operations were expanded and land was purchased in the different valleys around Ensenada. Over 110 years after its founding, a new and architecturally stunning wine production facility was constructed on the original land in the Santo Tomás Valley. Passing under the old mission bell and the worn wall ruins of the original buildings, you reach the new facility surrounded by its vineyards. Using gravity to process the grapes from the presses to the stainless steel fermentation tanks, this state-of-the-art facility may be visited during group tours. The inside of this circular building reveals a modernistic operation where the different levels are reached via spiral staircases and the bottom level is connected by tunnels to cave-like cellars. Each of the cellars is rigorously controlled to guarantee the optimum temperature and humidity for the aging process. Using the finest oak barrels for the first aging, the dedicated barrique-wines absorb the rich oak flavors. The wine is then allowed to further age in the bottle before it is ready to enjoy.

In their drive to develop top premium wines, the Bodegas de Santo Tomas joined forces with one of Alta California’s primer wineries, Wente Vineyards, to produce the Duetto label, an award winning high quality red wine. This along with its own Reserve and Unico labels put Bodegas de Santo Tomas on the level of world class vineyards.

Visit the wine cellars of Bodegas de Santo Tomas. Experience their vineyards and the unique vinery architecture on your way south. Enjoy some of the most exclusives wines of Baja California – taste Santo Tomas!