New Mexico Wine: A 400 Year Legacy
Help local wineries: One producer of great wines in New Mexico is Tularosa Vineyards. Please visit their website and order some wine. They have a great selection of wonderful New Mexican wines and ship to many states. There is also a link to a list of New Mexican wineries at the bottom of this post.
Quick! Can you name America’s oldest wine growing region?
Napa? New York? Maybe Washington?
Did you guess New Mexico?
For those of you who don’t know, I have lived in New Mexico all my life. We New Mexicans complain a lot about our home. The problem is, this isn’t always fair, and it’s certainly ironic because a lot of us don’t move. We need to celebrate our home more, and for all its challenges, it has a lot to offer.
Wine is one of New Mexico’s best offerings. We are well-known for it. Well, sort of. Not nearly enough. For this reason, I want to do my part in helping build New Mexico’s wine industry. We have a lot of potential, and as you can see, a strong heritage. Let me explain…
A Brief History of New Mexico Wine
Grape growing and winemaking started in New Mexico in 1629, when
See, the King of Spain ordered that churches only use wine from Spain for sacraments (the blessed bread and wine in Catholic church services) in the New World, and this didn’t sit too well with some of the local Catholic clergy. Capuchín monk Antonio de Arteaga, and Franciscan friar García de Zúñiga smuggled vines into an area just south of Socorro, New Mexico, and planted the first vineyards for sacramental wine.
Almost a century and a half before California started growing grapes. To put that in perspective, let’s say that, if California started growing grapes today, New Mexico would have already been growing them since the late 1870s.
New Mexicans have been making wine for almost 400 years!
We eventually became a massive producer of wine. But our success did not come easy. Between droughts, floods, and Prohibition, we fell off our pedestal. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when we would start rebuilding our wine industry.
I am on the board of the Middle Rio Grande chapter of the New Mexico Vine and Wine Society. A founder of the New Mexico Vine and Wine Society gave me some history on how the group formed. It turns out, a government report lauding the potential of growing french hybrid grapes (that is, grapes with one french vitis vinifera parent and one american grape parent bred together to be hardier) motivated scientists and engineers from our national labs to grow grapes and make wine. This report also brought many different winemakers and entrepreneurs from France. Many struggled and left, but a few stayed and thrived.
New Mexican Terroir: What Makes Wine from New Mexico Unique (all wine actually)
I’m introducing an important wine concept here, and that is terroir. Terroir (“Tear-wah”, with the “wah” pronounced like the “wa” in “water”) is basically the ecosystem of a winegrowing region–the climate, weather, soil, and even culture/tradition. It’s what makes a region’s wine, well, that region’s wine.
Somm Journal notes that many people compare the Mimbres Valley by Deming (see the wine pockets below) to the Mendoza wine region in Argentina. I think it’s a good comparison for all of New Mexico, because we are both high, dry, and sunny wine regions.
On the other hand, we’re the 5th largest state. That is to say, our climate is still diverse. We have all kinds of wine being grown in different places. A lady I met in the artsy New Mexican town of Madrid put it best. New Mexico has many little “pockets” all over where great wine is produced. She mentioned she’s from Oregon. Oregon’s really making their name in American wine, so I think she knows what she’s talking about.
New Mexico’s sandy soil is also great. Grapes need to grow deep roots in order to survive and “fight” for water. And our hot days and cold nights are also great for the grapes.
What Wine is New Mexico Known For?
When it comes to wines in New Mexico, most American wine experts know us for Gruet and their sparkling wine. Gruet can’t call their wines Champagne (the law states that only wines from the Champagne region of France can call themselves Champagne, with the exception of a few wineries that started making it before the law was made). But they can certainly brag about making sparkling wine with the traditional champagne making method, called Méthode Champenoise. This method is straight up no shortcuts, labor-intensive, and needs special precaution because it’s actually kind of dangerous (especially when you’re shooting out frozen plugs of dead yeast from pressurized bottles). It’s intense.
Despite this intense, detailed, long process to make wine in the traditional Champagne way, Gruet’s wines are surprisingly super affordable with many priced between $10-$20 a bottle. I have heard more than one person say that it tastes exactly like Dom Perignon. I’ll let you decide. I can say it’s excellent. Champagne expert Julia Comey mentions Gruet in her blog. Check it out!
New Mexican wineries also love to celebrate our Spanish winemaking heritage. Vara is one winery that celebrates it in a big way. Many others in New Mexico grow Spanish grapes for wine like Tempranillo, and some even make wine from the Mission grape. The Mission grape (known as País in Chile and Listán Prieto in the Canary Islands) is the grape the monk and friar smuggled to make their sacramental wine. It’s usually sweet and tastes best that way. It’s a good beginner wine if you’re looking to expand your wine horizons. Some wineries also go traditional and add brandy to fortify it, making it 18% alcohol and sweet, kind of like a Port wine.
People don’t exactly know New Mexico for chokecherry wine, but several wineries here make it. It’s not a grape wine, but I argue it’s a strong part of our heritage. It’s a novelty, and not too hard to find. If you get a bottle, you’ll notice the wine has a lot of cinnamon flavor to it. It’s not my favorite, but it’s pretty good, especially the premium bottle from Las Nueve Niñas Winery!
Some of New Mexico’s “Wine Pockets”
Let’s take a look at some of these wine pockets I talked about!
Most of our tourists visit Santa Fe or Taos. There are several tasting rooms in Santa Fe, where you can easily try several different wines from all around New Mexico. If you visit Santa Fe or Taos, however, I also suggest taking a winery day trip to Dixon. Dixon is close and a trip is certainly possible. Being in the mountains next to the Embudo River, the climate is pretty mild and great for growing quality grapes. Black Mesa, Vivac, and La Chiripada are three wineries located here. I need to learn more about Dixon wine, but I suspect that the cooler climate is great for grapes like Riesling. I’ll get back to you. It looks like I have some learning to do!
Black Mesa has all different kinds of wines to try of all different prices, from bone-dry to super sweet, hard cider, and even lavender infused wine! Their wines are adorned with medals from wine competitions all over.
Deming, a smallish town down south in New Mexico, is actually the heart of most of New Mexico’s grape growing. St. Clair and Luna Rossa operate there, and most of our wineries (especially the bigger wineries) buy grapes from growers like Luna Rossa in this area. If you’re drinking New Mexican wine, the grapes might be from here.
Middle Rio Grande (Albuquerque and Belen)
Albuquerque, being our state’s largest city, has all of the big wineries and quite a few boutiques. But if you want to travel and discover some other great wineries, I suggest taking a short trip down south to Belen. That’s where Jaramillo Vineyards and Black’s Smuggler Winery operate. I work for Jaramillo at wine festivals, and I love their wine. (By the way, check out my tips for attending a wine festival if you want to have the best time possible.) They have something for everybody, and they put their tasting room in a quaint old hotel with a nice ate. My favorite is the Norton they grow. If you’re a wine lover from Missouri, you know what Norton is. It’s a French hybrid grape native to Virginia. It’s got great notes of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, which is uncommon in most other wines. Thomas Jefferson likely grew it, and Jaramillo is the farthest south winery in the United States to grow it.
Where to Find New Mexico Wine
There are over 50 wineries in New Mexico, and so it’s difficult to summarize them all. Take a look at New Mexico Wine’s list of local wineries:
Many of these wineries do ship to many states, just not all 50. Look on their websites for more information. If you can’t ship New Mexican wine, I would look for Gruet. Gruet is probably the most widely available of all New Mexican wines. I have, for example, seen Gruet rosé at a Whole Foods 365 in Long Beach, California.