The country's original wine region has a storied past — and present.
By Ashley M. Biggers
California may be the marquee wine region of the United States, but it wasn't the first. Long before Napa, New Mexico laid claim as the first New World wine country — and today's wine growers are aiming to make it not only the original but also the best.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate's expedition settled in the upper Rio Grande Valley in 1598. Franciscan monks followed — and with them the need for sacramental wine for daily Mass. At the time, Spanish law forbid exporting grapevines, but the monks were not deterred. They smuggled cuttings out of Spain, across the Atlantic, and into New Mexico. They planted in 1629, rooting the vines that made this landscape the country's first wine-growing region centuries before it officially became part of the United States.
The wine industry grew and by 1884, New Mexico ranked fifth in the nation for wine production. Wine growers cultivated many varieties — not only the monks' original vitis vinifera, or "mission grape." However, the booming business didn't last. At the turn of the 20th century, flooding wiped out the original vines. Prohibition followed, practically obliterating the region's claim to wine fame.
Then in the early 1980s, adventurous French winemakers looking for new lands to cultivate helped re-establish the state's wine industry. Hervé Lescombes, who once ran Domaine de Perignon winery in Burgundy, France, found familiar terrain in New Mexico. The rolling high desert was similar to his native Algeria, where his ancestors made wine for generations. He planted in the southern part of the state. Since its first bottling in 1984, Lescombes Family Vineyards has become the state's largest vintner, with 70 different wines under a handful of labels, including Blue Teal, D.H. Lescombes, and St. Clair.
Another French family's label has put New Mexico on the wine-making map. Hailing from Bethon, France, Gruet Winery's founder Gilbert Gruet began producing champagne in 1952. In 1984, Gruet planted the family's first grapevines in New Mexico. 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 Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of the World List in 2011.
Now Gruet is teaming with Santa Ana Pueblo on one of the country's only Native American–owned vineyards. The pueblo planted its vines just north of Albuquerque in 2014. It's cultivated the 30-acre Tamaya Vineyard with Gruet, its primary customer, in mind. The vineyard's pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier grapes have so far created a still rosé, though future plans include creating a sparkling wine. This is only one of the contemporary wines reminding oenophiles why New Mexico vinos deserve a sip.