When thinking about good wine, many people’s minds travel to the rolling hills of Tuscany, or the fertile fields of southern France. From Spain to Napa Valley we import and export all varieties of this nectar of the gods. What most people do not know, however, is that some of the country’s greatest vineyards first sprang up right here in New Mexico.
The story of New Mexican wine began with the arrival of the Franciscan friars. El Camino Real served as the road to vines as the friars attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Originally, the missionaries imported wine from Spain for the ceremonial communion. Because the Spanish government was worried about protecting their domestic wine industry and lucrative export business, it was illegal to export grapevines to the New World. However, in 1629, missionaries successfully smuggled grapevine cuttings out of Spain. Although cold winters and pueblo revolts in the 1600s initially posed a challenge for the mission grapevines, success came later when numerous vineyards sprang up in central New Mexico. Nearing the start of the 20th century, the state was 5th in the country for wine production.
So where are we now? According to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, there are 43 registered vineyards that distribute their wines locally to globally. There are also over 32 different varieties of grapes grown in the area. We’ve come a long way since the 1600s. There are even researchers at NMSU dedicated to the study of which grape produces the best wine in our state. When I asked Bernd Maier, the state viticulturist working directly with researchers from NMSU, what gives NM wine an edge he said, “New Mexico produces unique wines that also do well in national and international competitions and the wine consumer is increasingly interested to taste wine from different regions in the world.” So who is making this wine? I was lucky enough to tour a number of New Mexican vineyards that distribute at a local, regional and even global level.
Casa Rondena is located in Albuquerque’s prosperous North Valley. The winery distributes to Northern/Central New Mexico and a few places near Las Cruces. Not all the grapes are produced on the property, but the fermenting and sugaring process takes place there. Other ingredients are imported from Southern New Mexico or Southern Colorado. I recommend their 1629 Founder’s Reserve. From speaking with the staff, it is plain to see the success of this business is substantial – but, it is the owner’s wish to keep the wine circulation local. A sense of community is present here, with its wine clubs, wedding parties, cooking classes and an overall joyous representation of the growth of something good. The Wine Tasting room is open to the public seven days a week and is a great escape to Tuscany-meets-the-Southwest.
The vineyard Estrella del Norte produces various labels, and is commonly known for their Santa Fe Vineyard brand. Owned and operated by Richard and Eileen Reinders, this grove is located on the road to Nambe in Northern New Mexico. They distribute mostly in New Mexico, but have reached out as far as Arizona and Southern Colorado. They have big plans for the future, but are not looking to expand too far. The reason for this is their dedication to producing quality, not quantity, wines while also adhering to sustainable practices. While their wine is not labled “organic,” the manual labor, water conservation initiatives and community-oriented environment are highly admired and respected by their customers and peers in the industry.
The third vineyard I’d like to mention is Gruet Winery, which has been internationally recognized for its sparkling wine. The Gruet family has been in the wine business for a long time. Coming from France, they brought their love for wine as well as the “method champenoise” with them. Their vineyard is located in Truth or Consequences and strives to use the least amount of pesticides as possible. They have a drip system feeding from Elephant Butte Lake that helps them minimize water waste and evaporation. I recommend the selection of 2008 Pinot Noir for a red and the Blanc de Noir for a brut.
Whether you can find them in another country or only at a unique local boutique, the wines of New Mexico are grown with tradition, excellence and passion. We were the first wine producers in the country and are continuing to preserve and enhance the state’s viticulture. So next time you are looking for something nice to share with special people, remember to seek out what is grown right under your nose, what has given culture to the ground just beneath your feet.
Vineyards visited in the formation of this blog include: Etrella Del Norte, Gruet, Casa Rondena, St. Clair, Vivac, Black Mesa and Ponderosa Valley. Please check out this interactive map to find out about more vineyards and locations. Cheers!
Posted by Kendra