Young winemakers are leveraging the wisdom of the state’s winegrowing founding fathers
story and photos by Deborah Parker Wong
Home to three large American Viticulture Areas: Middle Rio Grande Valley, Mimbres Valley and Mesilla Valley and over 2,500 acres of grapes under vine, wine culture in New Mexico is flourishing.
New Mexico has a 400-year history of winegrowing. Spaniards first brought vines to the region in the 17th century and Italian wine culture was imprinted there when Jesuit priests arrived in the 1860s. By the end of that century, the state was among the top five winegrowing regions in the country. Prohibition and a crippling 100-year flood of the Rio Grande were severe setbacks for the industry until commercial production resumed again in the late 1970s.
But the recuperation of New Mexico’s wine industry began in earnest when Italian, German, and French viticulturists brought their expertise to the state in the 1980s. Winegrowing in New Mexico continues to be influenced by these modern-day founding fathers, their families and a host of young winegrowers who are quickly elevating the quality and style of the region’s wines.
Italian know-how has been a driving force in the evolution of the state’s modern industry, thanks to the D’Andrea family. Fourth-generation winegrower Paolo D’Andrea, a native of Fruili, arrived in Deming, New Mexico in 1986 to train workers how to prune grape vines and to manage the state’s largest vineyard, a 300-acre site in the Mimbres Valley. With 2,000 acres under vine, Mimbres was established in 1985 and is the state’s largest American Viticulture Area (AVA). Cabernet Sauvignon and Italian varieties are dominant here and the valley’s terroir is compared to the Mendoza region of Argentina.
By 2001 Paolo and his wife Sylvia had founded their own winery, Luna Rossa, as well as a highly successful rootstock grafting business that supplies grape vines to growers throughout The Southwestern United States. Today, their son Marco, the fifth-generation D’Andrea, is winemaker at Luna Rossa.
After touring the company’s vineyards, grafting facility, and two restaurants (an Italian and Mexican restaurant both operated by Sylvia) I checked in with Marco for an update on the 2018 harvest. “Overall I’d say this year was above average,” he said. While white varieties generally had higher acidity—a plus for this warm region—he noted that sugar levels spiked in the more sensitive varieties like Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Given that the D’Andreas prefer lighter-bodied, Italian-styled wines versus a more opulent, weightier style, he expects excellent Malvasia Bianca, Riesling and Ribolla Gialla with a sparkling base from this vintage.
“The reds matured at correct analytical levels with rotting at less than one percent so I expect to see more excellent quality reds in comparison to previous years. Overall harvest has gone well; the rain rarely hindered us from picking so we were fortunate for that.”
Winegrowing in New Mexico can be considered extreme due to altitude and the dry, continental climate. There’s risk from frost in the late spring, it’s windy during set through May leaving some varieties prone to shatter, soils can have a high saline content, and because there is little or no fall, it’s a headlong plunge into winter. Growers must also hill-up or mound soil around the trunks to the graft point to winterize the vines.
Given how dry the climate is, winegrowers typically irrigate during the winter months to keep some humidity in the soils. “We need deep-rooting vines for humidity and we’ve modified our growing practices. For example, we use a modified spur pruning that leaves longer canes to combat frost,” said Paolo D’Andrea. Vineyards in Deming sit at 4,300 feet above sea level and the diurnal shift helps grapes retain acidity during hot summer days. The southern part of the state sees more pressure from pests but on average D’Andrea only treats his estate vineyard four times a year.
“PH can be a challenge in finished wine,” he said. “We often lose acid in an effort to ripen the yield. Typically we’ll have lower brix at harvest due to the short growing season and pressure from weather during harvest makes picking decisions key.”
- Luna Rossa 2016 Riesling—rich, bright, focused showing stone fruit and yellow plum.
- Luna Rossa 2013 Nini—is a blend of six grapes: Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Refosco, and Montepulciano with extended barrel aging of 58 months showing smooth, spicy tannins, and apparent oak flavors.
Bernd Maier came to Engle, New Mexico to plant vineyards in 1984. He arrived from Baden, Germany with his young family including his son Benjamin who was three at the time. Maier planted many vineyards and among them is a site now operated by the Gruet Winery which is located in Albuquerque. In 1989 Maier moved to Las Cruces where he began advocating appropriate trellising systems, canopy management, and varieties that were better suited to the New Mexico climate.
He became the state’s first Extension Viticulture Specialist in 2006 and is credited with installing a climate station network and beginning important work on a multi-state grape variety trial. Maier’s considerable contributions to the New Mexico wine industry were acknowledged in 2010 when he received the New Mexico Vine and Wine Society’s Distinguished Service Award.
He and his son Benjamin bring their expertise with vineyard architecture, viticulture, irrigation, and frost protection to the industry as consultants and are credited with planting many of the state’s most successful sites. Their 12-acre estate vineyard contains 27 varieties including Gewurztraminer, the southern Italian variety Negro Amaro, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Teroldego, and Verdelho planted to colluvial and loess soils created by the wind on the floodplains of the Rio Grande.
Benjamin Maier and his wife Lisa operate the company’s Amaro Winery in downtown Las Cruces which they founded in 2009. As winemaker, Maier works with his own estate fruit and sources from growers in southern New Mexico to produce both dry wines including a Malbec and sweeter styles like the popular blush, Cruces Sunrise. In 2016, Amaro and the wineries of the Mesilla Valley introduced the Mesilla Valley Wine Trail Festival which runs the length of the valley from north to south and includes the state’s first modern, commercial winery, La Viña in southern Doña Ana County.
- 2017 Malvasia—notes of vanilla, pear, and creamsicle with medium acidity.
- 2015 Chenin Blanc—with 20 grams per liter of residual sugar, was rich like an apple-pear tart.
- 2017 Negro Amaro—a leaner style with more red fruit and complexity.
- 2017 Gewurztraminer—showed dried white peach and lower acidity.
- 2014 Malbec—dark and moody with blue and black fruits and earthy grip.
The wine brand most widely associated with New Mexico is, without question, Gruet which was founded by the Gilbert Gruet family from the Gruet et Fils winery in Bethon, France. Gilbert’s son, Laurent Gruet, a native of Champagne who studied at the Lycée Viticole de la Champagne in Avize, is the winemaker and owns the winery with his sister Nathalie.
Having completed his 32nd harvest in New Mexico, Gruet is a traditionalist who employs barrel fermentation and traditional method Champenoise techniques to produce wines that are considered among the top 100 in the world. According to Gruet, his wine quality is directly tied to the low pH in the soils that allow grapes to retain acidity while ripening in desert conditions with little water and lots of ultraviolet light. He also fully blocks malolactic in the wines which is another way of protecting their fine acidity and chapitalizes the must to reach a desired level of alcohol.
A champion of Meunier, formerly called Pinot Meunier, Gruet has planted it side-by-side with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to an austere vineyard site––the Tamaya Vineyard—between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Located on the Santa Ana Pueblo at 5,110 feet, the site is a protected clos nestled between two arroyos that create a warmer mesoclimate. Thanks to clonal material ideally suited to the site––an “Uber Chardonnay” and high-yielding 407 Pinot Noir clone––and strategic row orientation, Gruet has completed his second and most successful harvest from the vineyard.
The Gruet winery was founded in 1984 when the family purchased a vineyard near Elephant Butte Reservoir at 4,245 feet in Engle, and the first release followed in 1989. In 2013 Gruet partnered with Precept Wine, and now, with 75 acres under vine, Gruet produces 150,000–175,000 cases of sparkling annually. Gruet also sources Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the D’Andrea’s Luna Rossa vineyard. In addition to his famous sparkling, Gruet now produces still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “2016 was the earliest harvest on record for us,” he said, noting July 18th as the date, but according to local news reports the 2018 harvest of Pinot Noir at Tamaya began on August 6th.
- 2014 Gruet Blanc de Noirs—shockingly youthful, nutty with notes of vanilla and raspberry.
- 2017 Pinot Noir barrel sample—red and black fruit, pencil shavings, leather, brown spice, and briefly astringent.
- NV Grande Reserve Sparkling—100% Chardonnay and a blend of vintages 2010–2015 aged in foudre that showed massive intensity with mineral and smoky pear notes.
The connection between the founding fathers of the New Mexico’s modern wine industry—D’Andrea, Maier, and Gruet—and the progress that’s being made by the next generation of winegrowers like Jasper Riddle, and brothers Jesse and Chris Padberg, points to the bright future of the state’s industry.
Noisy Water Winery
Jasper Riddle’s, Noisy Water Winery, sources fruit from no less than eight different vineyards and often more from sites focused in the northern regions of the state. “We champion the fruit of local growers,” he said, and in doing so he’s found a ready local market for his wines. Riddle is a fifth-generation farmer and winemaker who bought Noisy Water Winery in Ruidoso in 2010. He credits his Italian heritage and early exposure to wine culture by his sommelier father for helping him dial in his passion for wine.
“2018 was good for us with new vineyards coming online. However, we did see a late freeze after bud break in the Las Cruces area and that reduced yields there by 70 percent at some sites.” Riddle who finished his tenth harvest in 2018 said he crushed about 200 tons of fruit in 2018. A native of Ruidoso, which is north-east of Las Cruces, he works with more than 30 grape varieties and bottles more than 40 types of wine including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, blends, and popular Hatch chile-flavored wines.
Riddle is on the move and his success hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has doubled the size of his existing 6,000-square-foot winery facility and has a string of tasting rooms across the state that are thriving. The company has six locations in four cities and employs 44 people with plans to hire ten more. Currently producing 25,000 cases, the winery is on track to reach its goal of 100,000 cases by 2024. Earlier this year he was named “New Mexico Small Business Person of the Year” by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Vivác Winery estate vineyard in Dixon is one of the most dramatic and beautiful winegrowing sites I’ve encountered. Located in the Middle Rio Grande Valley AVA, north of Santa Fe, Jesse and Chris Padberg and their wives Michele and Liliana, respectively, founded The Vivác Winery (named for the Spanish term meaning “high-altitude refuge”) in 1998, and released their first wines in 2003.
Born and raised in Dixon, the Padbergs are continuing their studies at the University of California at Davis, and work every aspect of production from pruning their estate vineyards to bottling. Committed to a “slow and steady” approach, the brothers also source fruit from the D’Andreas in Deming.
In 1999, they planted the organically farmed Fire Vineyard which sits at 6,000 feet. The site is planted to French hybrids, including Léon Millot, Baco Noir, and Marechal Foch. Their newly-planted 1725 Vineyard sits at 5,800 feet, on land that once belonged to Francisco Martin, a great-great-grandson of the original Francisco Martin who settled the Embudo Valley in 1725. It’s planted to several varieties including Gruner Veltliner, Petit Verdot, Meunier, Riesling, and Arrandell. The winery produced 4,000 cases in 2017 with plans to produce 6,000 cases.
The Padbergs have added ten acres of vineyards around the tasting room and have plans for a production facility there. An iconic white sandstone mountain, the Barrancos Blancos, overlooks the tasting room and surrounding vineyards which are planted to Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Petit Verdot.
- 2015 Refosco—clean and light-bodied with grilled berries, earth, and toast.
- 2015 Petit Verdot—balanced, medium-bodied with good varietal typicity.