We love New Mexico and always look forward to spending time in the Land of Enchantment. In late March, we were honored to have been invited to present at the New Mexico Wine & Grape Growers Association annual conference in Las Cruces. As a region of the state that we had never visited, we were excited to have an opportunity to visit a few wineries and taste some local wines. We were particularly excited to check out the wineries using locally-grown grapes, as the growing conditions in some parts of New Mexico are very similar to those that we experienced in Western Colorado. With only a few hours to explore before our presentation, we headed out to two wineries- St. Clair Winery in Las Cruces and La Viña Winery, about 20 miles south, in La Union. After tasting at each, we chose a few bottles to bring home, either because we enjoyed them or they appealed to our geeky winemaking side in some way.
St. Clair Winery- Las Cruces
As New Mexico’s largest winery, St. Clair produces more than 70 different wines under a number of labels. In addition to their many wines, they are well-known for their bistros, with one located at the winery and the others in Albuquerque and Farmington. While we didn’t have a chance to enjoy a meal, we did taste through 13 wines at the tasting room bar. We tried everything from a Malvasia Bianca, to a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, to the Limited Release Petit Verdot. Everything we tasted was produced using New Mexico grapes, many of which came from St. Clair’s own 180-acre vineyard in Deming, about 50 miles to the west of Las Cruces. At an elevation of 4,500 feet (very comparable to our 4,710 feet at Canyon Wind), we were excited to have the opportunity to compare varietals to those that we grew- especially the Petit Verdot, as you don’t find varietal Petit Verdot produced very often. After our tastes, we settled on two very different wines to bring home- one fun, the other more traditional.
A Pink Moscato, the Mimbres Pink definitely falls into the sweet category with a residual sugar of 8%. A “sister wine” to the winery’s popular Mimbres Red and Mimbres White, the 2016 Mimbres Pink was sweet but surprisingly well-balanced with the acid. A deep raspberry color, it had aromas of strawberry candy, honey, and tomato water, with hints of cardamom; and the palate was reminiscent of a cherry phosphate soda. We were curious about the name (we love a good wine name story…i.e. Anemoi) and searched the website for more information, but came up empty-handed. Quite refreshing, it would be the perfect bottle for a warm summer afternoon.
A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Zinfandel, the 2014 Cab-Zin was surprisingly light in both color and structure for a blend of two traditionally “bigger” grapes. A light garnet color, it had a dominant aroma of garlic scapes, which we attributed to reduced sulfur. Hints of blackberry, cranberry, cola nut, and cassis were present in the background and became slightly more forward as some of the SO2 blew off. Flavors of cassis and jellied cranberry were masked by the residual sugar, and there was no real detectable oak characteristics; but it did have a respectable balance with the acid and structure. Not a style that appeals to us, it could be an inexpensive ($12) option for those that prefer a lighter, semi-sweet red.
La Viña Winery
From New Mexico’s largest winery, we headed down to the state’s oldest winery. Located approximately 15 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the drive into the winery from the north passes by acres upon acres of pecan orchards. In fact, the world’s largest pecan orchard lies just south of the city of Las Cruces. Pecans in New Mexico? Who knew! During our visit, we were the only ones in the tasting room, which gave us the opportunity to spend some talking about the winery and wines with the Business Manager, Luz. Originally from Chile, she had a bubbly personality and a great deal of knowledge about the grapes and winemaking process, making the customer service one of the best we’ve experienced in any winery visit. We tasted through a number of the 30-ish wines produced, including a Sangiovese and Late Harvest Mourvedre, before ultimately settling on a Gewurtztraminer and Cab Sauv to bring home.
As grape growers and winemakers, our focus was typically on red grapes; and most often, those from the Bordeaux region. This was partially due to the fact that we enjoyed working with and producing wines from those grapes, but also because those grapes grew successfully in our high-altitude, high desert region. It is always interesting to try wines produced from grapes grown locally, particularly those with which we have less experience. We were excited to find a Gewurtztraminer, a German variety usually found in cooler climates, from the Mesilla Valley AVA, a dry and hot growing area. The 2015 Gewurtztraminer had a beautiful nose of lychee, spiced pear, white grapefruit, and a nice hint of kerosene; followed on the well-rounded palate with flavors of pink grapefruit, honey, lime, lavender, and raw apricot. Though semi-sweet, it has nice structure and a good acid-sugar balance, with a surprisingly long and lingering finish. Jay decided it was best described as a “point/counterpoint” in your mouth, with the taste starting sweet but smoothly transitioning into a well-balanced finish. Neither of us are usually white wine drinkers, but we both kept going back for another sip…for research. Of all the wines we tasted while in the Mesilla Valley and of those we brought home, this was hands-down our favorite.
Little Table Cabernet Sauvignon
The second wine we tried from La Viña was one that was much more familiar to us, Cabernet Sauvignon. More than half of the 30+ acres of grapes that we grew as Canyon Wind were Cabernet Sauvignon. When Jay’s dad came up with the idea to plant a vineyard, he initially wanted to only grow and produce Cab Sauv. While this worked brilliantly for Silver Oak, it unfortunately wasn’t a viable option for an early winery in the Colorado Wine Industry. Although we ended up growing nine grapes and producing dozens of wines in our twenty years, we always produced a Cabernet Sauvignon (apart from 2010…but we won’t talk about that). It was, as we proclaimed, our “flagship” wine. Always interested to try other Cab Sauvs, particularly those from similar growing regions, we opted to bring home a bottle of the non-vintage Little Table Cabernet Sauvignon. Dry, with a nose of cassis, chocolate, vanillan, blackberry, raspberry, and a hint of play-doh, it reminded Jen of some of the wines we had produced. The palate was soft and a little light on acid, but had flavors of meat drippings, blackberry, and raisin- nice, but not what we would consider a typical hot climate Cab Sauv. It was a touch hot with a stunted finish, and we would have preferred a bit more structure, but it was a well-made wine and one that we would definitely get again to share with our friends eager to try wines from other non-traditional regions.
Heart of the Desert Wines and Pistachios
As we only had limited time while in Las Cruces, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit as many tasting rooms as we would have liked, so we were excited to run across a tasting room/shop for Heart of the Desert Wines in the historic plaza in Old Mesilla Village, just south of Las Cruces. Originally begun as a pistachio farm by the Schweers family, the Heart of Desert line of wines were added to the family in 2002. Now, in addition to owning the first and largest growing pistachio groves in New Mexico, the family has a vineyard growing seven different varieties. As we were headed straight to the conference from this stop, we didn’t have the opportunity to taste any wines, so we asked the sales associate to choose her favorite for us to take home. We ended up bringing home the non-vintage Corazon Gitano.
Translating to “heart of a gypsy”, the Corazon Gitano is a blend of 20% each of Aglianico, Carmenere, Petite Sirah, Refosco, and Syrah. Unfamiliar with Aglianico and Refosco, some quick research found that both are Italian grapes. We are the first to admit that our knowledge of Italian grapes isn’t as extensive as it could be, especially seeing as there are literally hundreds of different varieties. Seriously, hundreds. Unfortunately, our initial impression of the wine was less than positive as it smelled overwhelmingly of reduced sulfur. Given a little time to blow off, some aromas of dried prune, cherry candy, Brussels sprouts, and Italian parsley did peek through. The palate was slightly smoky and astringent, with flavors of parsley and onion powder, which we also attributed to reduced sulfur. The structure was so large and out-of-balance with the rest of the wine that it left us wondering what happened to the fruit and finish. We were unable to find any information about where the grapes were grown, so we aren’t sure if they came from the family’s vineyards or were from out-of-state. While this wine wasn’t one that we would repeat or recommend, we’d always be open to trying other varieties and blends produced by the winery and hope to run across more the next time we are in New Mexico.