California may be considered the Mecca of American wine, but well before The Golden State was dazzling wine drinkers with its cabernets and chardonnays, there was another wine region that laid claim to America’s premier vineyards. Actually, it was home to America’s first and only vineyards: New Mexico.
Despite arriving to the scene first, New Mexican wines have gone mostly unnoticed on the global – or even national – stage. But current wine growers are aiming to change that with steady releases of wide-ranging, and award-winning, bottles.
When Don Juan de Onate’s 1598 expedition settled in the upper Rio Grande Valley, Franciscan monks followed – and with them, a need for wine for daily mass. Despite Spanish laws that forbid exporting grapevines, the monks smuggled cuttings out of Spain and into New Mexico. With their 1629 plantings, the landscape became the first wine-growing region in what would eventually become the United States.
The monks cultivated vitis vinifera, or the “mission grape,” a sweet fruit for sacramental wine. (The variety is still grown in New Mexico today, though other types are more plentiful.)
By 1884, the territory of New Mexico ranked fifth in the nation for wine production. At the turn of the 20th century, flooding wiped out the original vineyards and the region’s national wine notoriety. Prohibition later cut the industry back further. However, by the early 1980s, the grape crush was on again, thanks in part to French winemakers looking for new lands to cultivate.
Hervé Lescombes, who once ran Domaine de Perignon winery in Burgundy, France, found familiar grounds in New Mexico. The vast mesas and climate were strikingly similar to those of his native Algeria, where his ancestors made wine for generations. He planted in the Mimbres Valley appellation, a sparse area of southern New Mexico where tumbleweeds are more plentiful than grapes.
Since his first vintage in 1984, his Southwest Wines has become New Mexico’s largest vintner, with 70 different wines under a handful of labels, including Blue Teal, D.H. Lescombes, and St. Clair. His sons, Florent and Emmanuel Lescombes, now oversee a handful of tasting rooms and bistros dotting the state, from those near their vines in the town of Deming to Albuquerque, the state’s largest city.
Although some New Mexico wines lean sweet to stand up to the state’s spicy, chile-laden cuisine, most labels produce well-balanced wines, like Southwest Wine’s Blue Teal label chardonnay, with citrus flavors and a buttery-oak finish.
Among its reds, the D.H. Lescombes Limited Release Hervé has a cherry cordial nose, and finishes with flavors of oak, black pepper, and pipe tobacco. In 2009, a similar D.H. Lescombes release earned a best-of-the-best Sweepstakes Award from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, one of several New Mexico wines earning national and international acclaim.
Another winery with French ties, Gruet Winery, is also making waves in the wine world. Hailing from Bethon, France, founder Gilbert Gruet began producing Champagne in 1952. By chance, a New Mexico trip introduced him to the landscape near the area where Franciscans first planted grapes three centuries earlier.
In 1984, Gruet rooted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grape vines, which have produced award-winning methode champenoise sparkling wines. Under the guidance of Gilbert’s son and daughter, Laurent and Nathalie, Gruet Winery’s 2011 NV Blanc de Noirs earned the No. 43 spot on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the World List in 2011. Its Blanc de Noirs is known for its round mouthfeel and balanced fruit, minerals and acidity.
Set just north of the city, Santa Ana Pueblo is one of a handful of Native American tribes in the country with a commercial vineyard. Santa Ana Pueblo cultivated Tamaya Vineyard from scratch with its primary customer, Gruet Winery, in mind. Some 30-acres of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes unfold from the highway into the Sandia Mountain foothills, where cool air rolling off the mountain and warm air rolling off the river valley keep frost at bay in the 5,300-foot locale.
Tamaya Vineyard released its first still wine with Gruet Winery last fall; it’s a dry Provence-style rosé with good balance and lots of juicy berry flavor. Although New Mexico has stayed off most oenophiles’ radars, with more wines like this one, it’s unlikely to remain that way for much longer.