It’s a beautiful morning just three kilometers outside Ensanada, Mexico. The area is just a few breezes from the coast of the Pacific Ocean and a quick jaunt south of the US/Mexico border, but it feels like you’re on the other side of the world. Untouchable, peaceful, there’s no way you’re only a few hours from your chaotic life in AZ.
Majestic hills and distant mountains, morning fog cleared by bountiful sunshine, the smell of sea air … Is this Spain? Italy? The workers here are taking to the fields and they’re not just tending to olive trees and grape vines for an obscure, small production operation. This is Santo Tomas, the second-oldest winery in Mexico, where the grape juice rivals some of the best you’ve had from France, California, Italy, or … yes, we said France.
“It reminds me of Val di Cembra, outside Trentino in Italy,” says Dave Johnson, Valley wine expert and currently the sommelier at Quiessence restaurant. “No one knows it’s there, it’s just so beautiful, so natural. You look at it and think: ‘there’s no way this wine won’t be good.’”
Santo Tomas was settled by Dominicans in the 1700s. The area had fantastic natural irrigation, so their plantings of Mission grapes and olives thrived. The combination of fog and sunshine provided the ideal climate for this venture, and at the time, it was less about quality and more about quantity. “They were just trying to grow as much as possible,” says Johnson. Eventually, the land was plucked from holy farmers, and a private owner started making grape deals with prominent California families like Wente and the Gallo. Since high-quality Santo Tomas winemaking wasn’t the focus, they literally lost track of the varietals, planting zinfandel next to syrah, mixing in a cabernet here or there. And at the time, it didn’t matter.
But working the soil and maturing the vines turned out to be serendipitous because now, whatever comes out of the land at Santo Tomas is pure gold. “It’s the Silver Oak of Ensanada,” says Johnson.
We met him and the importer for Santo Tomas, Enrique Ramos of Creo Spirits at Plaza Bonita, a Mexican restaurant located in Happy Valley off Carefree Way. “Their food is simple, authentic, and full of flavor,” says Ramos. “I wanted you to try these wines with real Mexican food. It’s the closest we can get to Ensanada without getting in the car for a road trip.” (Which Johnson, then, quickly said he was up for…) Together, the pair do such a good job of describing Santo Tomas, that you’ll think you’re there (hence the opening paragraphs). Back to reality at Plaza Bonita…
First, we sipped their Mision Chardonnay – a perfect affordable way to begin any meal. A bottle runs about $12-$15. Their entire Mision line of wines are meant to be everyday drinkers and palate whetters. This wine would be perfect for large groups dining on spicy fare. Then items began arriving – sautéed prawns in a spicy red sauces with mushrooms and Spanish rice, freshly made guacamole, broiled snapper fillet in a hearty Veracruz sauce, warm tortillas, and of course, a chicken quesadilla.
Johnson immediately points out one of the most unique qualities of all Santo Tomas wines (and potentially all wine from coastal Mexico): salinity. There’s a salty character due, most likely, to a combination of natural irrigation flows and the type of sea air carried and then deposited through the morning fog. If you’re a geek about this kind of stuff, check out this study.
But then it was on to the reds. Santo Tomas’ Tempranillo is everything you’d expect – spicy, aromatic, smooth. However, our third try was the real head scratcher. A Barbera from Mexico? “How did the Italian varietals end up in Mexican soil?” Johnson asks. Of course, he gave the answer but we were too busy picking our jaws up off the floor. This Barbera drinks like it’s straight outta Italy. Honestly, there’d be nothing more fun than a blind taste test with this baby. And, both wines would retail around $25/bottle, which is a bargain for what you’re drinkin’.
We even opened one of the big boys Garcia brought: the 2007 Unica Gran Reserva. It’s a Cab-Merlot blend that’s as silky smooth and expressive as you’d expect from an $80 bottle, but not that you’d expect from Mexican wine. Incredible. They had a bottle of Santo Tomas’ Duetto, a Tempranillo-Cab Franc blend that we’re guessing is a total blockbuster. But palates doing what they do, we decided – another time.
So what was the point of all this? Ramos says it best: “We need to get patrons of Mexican restaurants thinking about Mexican wines. It’s not just tequila and beer. Spanish or Argentinian wines are the go-to in Mexican restaurants – but they can also go to Mexico.”
(To be fair, there are insanely subtle geopolitical and socio-economic and other-big-word reasons for this, check it out and read this.)
In case you’re wondering what Santo Tomas does with the olives? You can pick up their award-winning olive oil at AJ’s Fine Foods. Check out the lineup here: oldmexicogourmet.com.
If you’re a restaurant interested in trying Santo Tomas, shoot Enrique a quick note at firstname.lastname@example.org.