How El Cielo Produces Award-Winning Wines And Luxury Hospitality In ‘The Napa Valley Of Mexico’

Food & Drink

Picture miles of sprawling vineyards surrounded by mountains, dotted with boutique wineries, tasting rooms, world-class restaurants and quaint places to stay just minutes from the Pacific Ocean. No, this is not Napa, it’s Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, Mexico, only 90 miles south of the San Diego-Tijuana border.

Often hailed as the Napa Valley of Mexico and revered as one of the world’s last untapped great wine regions, Valle de Guadalupe is a serene destination brimming with wineries, vineyards, and award-winning dining that are giving the area global recognition as the next great food scene.

While the area produces 70%-90% of Mexico’s wine and the region’s winemaking history dates to the 1500s, Valle is only just starting to earn recognition on the world’s wine stage, and this is in large part due to the prestigious international awards it has been starting to claim. One of the region’s most respected wineries is El Cielo Resort & Winery.

Internationally Recognized Mexican Wines

At only 10 years of existence, El Cielo could be considered young in comparison to some of the original establishments, yet it produces the most internationally awarded wines in the country, including Tinto G&G 2019, Tinto Galileo 2019 and Hypatia Brut 2019, all earning gold medals at the world renowned Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in 2023.

“There are many key elements that distinguish El Cielo from other wine destinations in Valle de Guadalupe,” says Gustavo Ortega Joaquín, founder and CEO of El Cielo. “Starting first and foremost with our wine. Our lead winemaker Jesús Rivera is the only winemaker to achieve international revelation accolades for both a red wine and a white wine at the prestigious Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.”

El Cielo boasts 219 acres of land planted with a variety of grapes including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Primitivo, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Pinot Noir.

“Mexico, unlike other new world countries, has a great diversity of both white and red grapes that have allowed for a spectrum where extraordinary wines are produced,” says Gina Estrada, a celebrated Mexican sommelier and wine educator who also happens to be Ortega Joaquín’s wife. “This great diversity goes hand in hand with the great gastronomic richness of Mexico where there are very different dishes in states such as Oaxaca, Yucatan, Jalisco or Baja California,” she says.

Estrada serves as the Deputy General Manager at El Cielo Winery, where she leads the commercial team and is also directly involved with wine production. In 2017, Estrada and Ortega launched their co-created collection, G&G, consisting of five labels that have each earned numerous awards and recognitions.

2023 was a landmark year for El Cielo as they celebrated their 10th anniversary. The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certified 75% of the vineyards as organic, and two new wines were released — the sparkling G&G Blanc de Blancs Brut and Cassini Primitivo grape. Additionally, the resort relaunched Latitud 32 restaurant with a new menu showcasing Baja-Yucatán fusion cuisine to honor Ortega’s home state and products from the bountiful Baja Peninsula.

How It All Began

Ortega Joaquín was born in Mérida, Yucatán. As a businessman he created the Hacienda San Miguel hotel, opened the Playa Azul and Mr. Sancho’s beach clubs in partnership with his brother Jorge, and was General Manager of the Hotel Allegro Resorts Cozumel. He also served as Local Deputy and Secretary of Tourism in Quintana Roo, Municipal President of Cozumel, Delegate of Fonatur in Cancún, and was a Federal Deputy.

After visiting the wine producing chateaus of France, his retirement dream became to build a boutique hotel. He decided that his project would mirror that — a boutique hotel with its winery in which the entire experience of wine tourism and excellent gastronomy could coexist. Seeking financing, he partnered with his friends José Luis Martínez Alday and Dolores López Lira, pioneers of tourism in Quintana Roo and owners of Grupo Lomas, founders of Nickelodeon Riviera Maya, El Dorado Royale, and Generations hotels, among many others.

In 2013, El Cielo was the result of their partnership and the culmination of a dream. And for Ortega Joaquín, the retirement project turned into a new endeavor.

Aside from the winery, the luxury hospitality project includes a boutique resort with 95 suites and villas set around two reservoirs, evoking a relaxed Tuscany-meets-California style. There are two specialty restaurants and event spaces surrounded by 1,640 feet of beautiful vineyards and olive trees, ideal for those who wish to learn more about vine cultivation and wine production, exploring the diverse flavors and varietals that have put Valle de Guadalupe on the global map of wine destinations.

“El Cielo Resort & Winery truly offers travelers everything they need for an incredible food and wine experience in Valle de Guadalupe all on one property,” says Ortega Joaquín. “We make it easy for guests to experience the best the region has to offer while in maximum comfort, and our central geographic location within The Valle makes El Cielo a convenient homebase for exploring other hot spots throughout the area.”

The Rise Of Wine Tourism In Mexico

“In general, Mexico offers new various destinations that are increasingly recognized, such as Guanajuato, Querétaro or Coahuila, where there are new and interesting projects,” says Ortega Joaquín. “Wine is currently being made in 17 states of the country; however, we must recognize the leadership of the Valle de Guadalupe for the number of wineries it has and the great gastronomic offer, including two restaurants that are on the list of the 50 Best in Latin America.”

Plans are afoot to create a fine dining restaurant at El Cielo, aiming to earn Michelin star recognition now that the prestigious guide has announced Mexico as one of its next destinations. The team also plans to open a new spa at the resort by 2025. But at the heart of it all is the winery and everything it has to offer.

“We offer the biggest selection and most unique experiences for resort guests and winery visitors alike,” says Ortega Joaquín. “In addition to extensive vineyard tours, specialty wine tastings and bicycle and golf cart rentals, visitors to El Cielo can create their own blend of wine to take home as well as experience a first-of-its kind chocolate and wine pairing that involves a virtual reality component. The expansive winery and our engaging offerings are great for intimate trips as well as large group gatherings, and even after spending a whole day at El Cielo, there is still much to explore.”

“Mexico has grown in wine consumption in the last ten years,” says Estrada. “There is an increasing interest in organizing pairing dinners to showcase the possibilities of Mexican wine at the consumer’s table. Large restaurants and hotels in sun and beach destinations or in large cities have taken on the task of bringing gastronomy and its wine pairing possibilities to the end consumer.”

“This boom in wine consumption also demands the training of professionals in the industry, where a greater interest in knowledge and training must be awakened, as this is how Mexico can responsibly grow in terms of wine and wine tourism,” she adds. “In recent years there has been a growth in visitors from southern California and Arizona due to the proximity to the border,” Ortega Joaquín chimes in. “This forces us to better train our staff in both customer service and English language fluency.”

Although El Cielo has growth plans, they involve a strong commitment to sustainability, respect for the earth and the environment through several strategies, including using solar energy, energy efficiency, reusing 100% of the water for ornamental gardens that beautify the landscape and create small lungs that attract local and migrating birds especially around the reservoirs, which are built to appear like natural features.

“El Cielo is the winery in Ensenada with the most hectares of organic vineyards, and we are committed to reducing our carbon footprint to have a zero balance in 10 years,” says Ortega. “We will expand the facilities with state-of-the-art technology while maintaining energy efficiency and sustainability. As time goes by, our vines will exceed 10 years of life and will make better wines.”

As Ortega says, the future does not happen by chance, it is built.

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