New Mexico wine has come a long way from its beginnings in the 1600s. Today’s winemakers are making their mark and elevating the wine to new limits. One shining wine star is Sean Sheehan, Sheehan Winery. Sean represents the new breed of winemaker, who is taking the lead on promoting New Mexico Wine across the United States. He is the next generation of young winemakers who are the voice for the wine industry in New Mexico.
New Mexico Wine History
New Mexico’s wine history and grape growing started long before the first plantings in California and other states. Wine in this state dates back 392 years ago, circa 1629; the first grapevines were planted along the Rio Grande River near Missionary settlements by Franciscan Friars, who brought vines from Spain. One could say the birth of American viticulture started in New Mexico. By the 1800s, wine was considered one of the top three exports in New Mexico.
After Prohibition, New Mexico started to see a resurgence of its wine industry in 1977. It began with the opening of La Viña in La Union, and soon after, La Chiripada opened in Dixon. By the 1980s, many Italian, French and German immigrants settled in the area because land values were less expensive than areas like Napa. In 1981 Hevré Lescombes, a fifth-generation winemaker, left Burgundy to set up roots. Paolo D’Andrea, a fourth-generation grower from Friuli, moved to Deming to manage New Mexico’s largest vineyard. By 2001 he founded his winery, Luna Rosa, and a nursery that now supplies vines throughout the southwest. In 1984 Gilbert Gruet purchased property in New Mexico.
Finally, in 1984 Bernd Maier moved from Baden, Germany, to Engle, New Mexico, to plant vineyards and experiment with different varieties. He later opened Amaro Winery in Las Cruces.
It was not easy in the beginning because competition from California and Europe made it very difficult.
The New Mexico Wine & Grape Growers Association was created in 1991. They work together supporting family-owned wineries throughout the state. In 2016 they launched the VinaVino campaign and shortened their name to New Mexico Wine. The mission is to promote, protect and educate. Today, there are over 50 winery members.
New Mexico AVAs
New Mexico consists of three AVAs; Middle Rio Grande Valley, Mimbres Valley, and Mesilla Valley. Both the Mimbres Valley and Mesilla Valley AVAs were established in 1985, with the Mesilla being the oldest. Middle Rio Grande Valley received its designation in 1998.
Although not an AVA, Northern New Mexico, located about 45 miles north of Santa Fe, is home to several wineries and vineyards.
The Mimbres Valley AVA is located in the southwest portion of New Mexico near Deming. This AVA denotes New Mexico’s largest appellation. Soils consist of Alluvial river deposits, mostly clay and loam. Elevations range from 4300 to 6000 ft. The climate is continental, with hot summer days, cool nights, and cold winters. Mimbres Valley is often compared to Mendoza, Argentina, because of similarities in elevation, climate, and soils. The only difference being the Andes Mountains. This AVA represents the largest and oldest vineyards in New Mexico.
Mesilla Valley AVA
Located in the Las Cruces area, the Mesilla Valley AVA extends along the Rio Grande into Texas and is New Mexico’s smallest AVA. The soils in this region consist of Alluvial sandy loam, clay, and sedimentary deposits. The elevations range from 3700 to 9000 feet, although most vineyards reside around 4300 feet. In the summer, the climate is warm with cold winters.
Middle Rio Grande Valley
This appellation lies along the mid-section of the Rio Grande in central New Mexico and spans from Santa Fe to just south of Albuquerque. Most vineyards are planted at elevations between 4500 and 6500 feet. The semi-arid region experiences hot days and cool nights in the summer and cold winters. The soils consist of well-drained sand and loam.
New Mexico is capable of growing a wide range of varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot are popular. Cool-climate grapes grow in the northern portion of the state, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. In the southern part of the state, one can find Italian, Rhone, and Spanish style varieties like Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Aglianico, Barbera, Montepulciano, Refosco, Viognier, Syrah, Mourvédre, Grenache, and Tempranillo.
No particular grape defines new Mexico wine but rather a style with so many varietal options.
New Mexico Wine Style
In New Mexico, the style of wine leans away from robust and very ripe wines but instead gravitates towards more earthy flavors associated with old-world wines. The wines are lighter yet brighter in quality, especially in the red wines. Gruet was one of the first to take on this approach in their wines. It carries down to some of the newer winemakers such as Vivac, Noisy Water, and Sheehan. They use traditional methods, emphasizing the heritage of the region, and then add a new progressive approach that includes experimentation by trying new concepts in their winemaking.
This post is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Wander With Wonder on New Mexico Wine.