ENSENADA, Mexico - Wine lovers, listen up: There's a little-known gem just south of the border called Valle de Guadalupe.
It's a bit dustier and rougher around the edges than California's prized Napa Valley, but Baja's wine country offers a relaxed, unpretentious, budget-friendly experience clustered along a main highway in this region of Mexico known as the Ruta del Vino.
The fast-growing wine mecca just two hours south of San Diego is home to hip boutique hotels, an impressive culinary scene and more than 100 wineries to satisfy the most discerning of aficionados.
The greenest and busiest time to visit is May through September, but other months welcome serious connoisseurs looking for a quieter trip with more personal attention — often from the winemakers themselves. Add in a few crisp evenings spent sipping your favourite chardonnay by a fire pit and you've got yourself a memorable wine getaway with a fraction of the fuss.
Vinas de Garza: This romantic hilltop tasting room has some of the best views in the valley. Tastings range from $10-$16. Don't leave without trying the Blanco del Rancho Mogorcito, a delightful sauvignon blanc-chardonnay blend that delivers bright, fruity, unoaked flavours ($17.10 per bottle).
Hacienda la Lomita: Family-run Lomita, and its biodynamic sister location, Finca La Carrodilla, are committed to organic farming. Lomita's tiny, but trendy tasting room is known for its artsy ambiance and ruby red rose, a marshmallow and caramel flavoured dream ($11.82 per bottle). Tastings range from $12-$21.
Villa Montefiori: Set back off the main road, Montefiori's tasting room is a large viewing deck perched above its sprawling vineyard. They boast "Mexican wines with an Italian heart" with vines imported from owner Paolo Paoloni's home country, Italy. Try a glass for $4, tastings range from $6-$24 and bottles run $16-$64.
Monte Xanic: This lakeside oasis is owned by a collective of Mexican families. It's one of the largest, oldest and well-manicured properties in the area. The winery's dry and fruity malbec ($37 per bottle) was a standout. Tastings are $10-$17 and bottles range from $12-$53.
Come for the wine, but stay for the food. Valle de Guadalupe's restaurants serve up artistic, creative haute cuisine with a more palatable price than a comparable meal stateside.
Finca Altozano: This rustic, Instagram-friendly, steakhouse whips up locally sourced, seasonal delights like wood-fired quall ($13.25) and ahi tuna tostadas ($5). The most memorable meal of the trip was Finca's grilled pacific octopus ($8.75) in a mouth-watering citrus soy sauce. Don't forget to check out the gorgeous grounds and the larger-than-life wine barrel viewing decks, perfect for stargazing with a nightcap.
Adobe Food Truck: For a casual lunch with outdoor seating, stop by this popular food truck serving sandwiches, salads and tapas. Many plates are $5 or less.
Deckman's: Dine under the stars with an outdoor kitchen helmed by Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman. The locally grown, farm-to-table fare includes Thai curry mussels ($12.75) and a five-course tasting menu for $39.80.
Though gourmet food is a steal in Valle, expect fewer frills and pricier rates from the boutique hotels popping up throughout the area.
Villas Maglen: This newly built, centrally located hotel has six desert-chic villas grouped around fire pits, a small pool and an onsite restaurant.
Adobe Guadalupe: Explore the valley's vineyards via horseback while staying in this stunning, hacienda-style hotel.
Encuentro Guadalupe: This unique property offers 22 modern, eco-friendly pods with sweeping vineyard views.
PLAN LIKE A PRO
You can fly into Tijuana Airport or cross the border by car. To drive, you'll need a passport, a tourist card, also called an FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple), and Mexican car insurance, which can be purchased in advance from a number of companies.
Visit on weekdays to avoid crowded tasting rooms and traffic jams at the border, but note that many wineries are only open Thursday-Sunday and most close by 5 p.m. You can check border wait times online.
Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Valle, but it may handy to pick up pesos before you arrive.
You can bring one litre of alcohol back per person, duty free, to the United States. Pay a small fee at the border for additional bottles. You're allowed five litres per passenger when travelling by plane.
Wine not your thing? Check out bike rentals, zip lines, spas, horseback riding and ATV adventures or head to nearby Ensenada for fishing, watersports or a stroll through the touristy pier.
Follow Nicole Evatt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NicoleEvatt