As an amateur vinophile, I relish reading Cezar’s contributions in Polo Lifestyles. This month, his focus on Mexico pulled my heart strings as I gained a deep appreciation and love for Mexican wines when I was working in Mexico City and traveling to other parts of the country. Yes, I feel in love with tequila as well, but that's for another time.
His column also spurred my desire to share the similarities between the centuries of winemaking in Old Mexico with those of New Mexico, where, since moving to in 2016, I have developed a love for the budding industry and a few standouts that are praiseworthy.
The same dynamics that brought grape cultivation into Mexico brought it further north into Nuevo Mexico. Sixteenth century Spanish missionaries sought a local source for sacramental wine as they settled into the Rio Grande Valley. With many ups and downs, by the late 19th century, New Mexico, now a U.S. territory after being annexed after Mexico’s loss in the Mexican-American War, had emerged as the fifth largest wine producing area in the country.
Then came disastrous floods and the folly of Prohibition. On the latter, despite the zeal of faith-inspired teetotalers, New Mexico remained far-enough removed from the epicenters of American life that overall land dedicated to wine cultivation in New Mexico actually doubled during Prohibition. But the mighty Rio Grande proved a more formidable protagonist and major floods, culminating in the largest in 1943, decimated the industry.
It took a half century, but the wine industry in New Mexico bounced back and is creating some incredible wines… and at a very reasonable price point. Here are a few to add to your rotation.
Gruet – Perhaps most well known beyond New Mexico is Gruet. Founded in 1984, Gruet’s heritage is pure French (the family has been making Champagne in France since the middle of the 20th century) and so is their method – champenoise – for developing one of the best U.S. sparkling wines outside California.
Two distinct vineyards in New Mexico’s arid south – and a third in central New Mexico added in 2014 and done in partnership with the Pueblo of Santa Ana – yield a line-up of a half-dozen, non-vintage sparklings that deliver consistency, value and astonishment by those who’ve never tasted them before. My favorite is the Blanc de Blancs: gorgeous beading in the glass helps deliver essences of apple and honeysuckle and the Brut style avoids any cloying sweetness. Several years ago, while in New York City for the U.S. Open, a posh bar served Blanc de Blancs as their by-the-glass option, though I will own we ordered a bottle. Maybe two.
Gruet’s Chardonnay is also noteworthy and done more in the California style. Buttery and oaky come to mind and highly reminiscent of the Chardonnays out of Napa and Sonoma prior to the over-oaking sensation of the 1980s.
Gruet maintains tasting rooms in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I find the Albuquerque location garish in its architecture and off-the-freeway location; the Santa Fe tasting room is comfortably ensconced in the Hotel St. Francis with a lovely outdoor patio for warmer weather where I happened to have seen actor Emilio Estevez enjoying bubbly last summer.
Lescombes Family Vineyards – Also nestled in the southern part of the state, the Lescombes family tends some 200 planted acres of similar sandy and arid soils as Gruet, and also creates a respectable sparking, as well as a much larger line up under a half dozen other brands. I will admit that I find some of those brands undrinkable, including one brand that marries New Mexico’s ubiquitous Hatch chiles with wine. No. Just no.
What they do incredibly well are reds and under their flagship label of D.H. Lescombes. The Mouverdre is unforgettable. Matured in French oak for two years before bottling, it is deep and inky, bursting with stone fruit and notes of white pepper. It’s a limited release each year so I tend to get a call as soon as it becomes available so I can score a case. The limited release wines from Lescombes show the care and attention that the label prides itself on, so stay with them and eschew the other more gimmicky, commercial brands.
Lescombes runs a series of bistros with locations in Almagordo, Albuquerque and Las Cruces with the latter just being named a “Top 100 U.S. Restaurants 2022” by Yelp. They also have tasting rooms in Deming and Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Tasting room serves up self-created flights for patrons and has one of the best charcuterie boards to be found. Each location serves an extensive variety of the family’s wines.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of my favorite, smaller wineries in New Mexico. La Chiripada Winery, in the small rural village of Dixon, is always a stop for me when journeying north of Santa Fe. Billed as “New Mexico’s Oldest Winery,” it’s guaranteed to be a funky visit with a large variety of wines. I am partial to their reds including the Rio Embudo Red, a blend of obscure Leon Millot and DeChaunac grapes grown in nearby Embudo Valley and Ruby Cabernet from the southern part of the state’s Mimbres Valley.
Vivac Winery, founded in 1998, is doing some extraordinary magic with traditional Italian grapes, including Nebiolo, Barbera, Montepulciano, Refosco and Aglianico. Their tasting room, also in Dixon, is a great spot to sample the line-up and see how the northern New Mexico terroir, as well as the winemaking Padberg brother-duo behind Vivac, transforms the grapes into something unique and delicious.
Bill Smith Philanthropy contributor Polo Lifestyles 2022