June 20, 2012 at 12:52 PM
"New Mexico is the oldest wine-growing region in the country"
By Lynn Cline
Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.
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California has its Napa and Sonoma valleys, while France proudly calls the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions home. But did you know that New Mexico is the oldest wine-growing region in the country?
Thanks to Franciscan friar Garcia de Zuniga and Capuchin monk Antonio de Arteaga, who planted the first wine grapes in the Rio Grande valley of southern New Mexico in 1629, winemaking became a prosperous business in the region. The first grapevines were planted in Senecu, a pueblo south of Soccoro and just north of what is now San Antonio. Those grapes were a variety of Vinis vinifera, known as mission grape. Historians believe the cuttings were a European variety from Spain known as Monica.
Wine production in Senecu began in 1633, providing the sacramental wine for the region. Grapevines were planted in New Mexico so that the Franciscan monks, who followed the Spanish colonists to the area to convert the Pueblo people to Christians, would have wine for the Holy Communion. By 1880, more than 300,000 acres were planted with grapes, producing more than 1 million gallons of wine. New Mexico was then fifth in the nation in wine production.
But New Mexico's vineyards were hard hit by flooding in the early 20th century that destroyed vineyards and brought root rot to the grapes and harmful alkaline deposits that coated the vines. Yields were drastically cut from a high of almost a million gallons per year in 1884 to a low of just 1,684 gallons in 1910.
New Mexico's wine industry was reborn in 1978 and today, 46 wineries produce nearly 700,000 gallons of wine annually with the largest vineyard, Luna Rosa, located in Deming. The region's sun-soaked soil and cool nights provide the perfect conditions for growing Cabarnet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and other grapes.
Thanks to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, a nonprofit that promotes New Mexico winers, you can explore New Mexico's Wine Trails, with 52 stops across the state, visiting tasting rooms to sample an impressive array of varietals. The association's website offers a map of all the wineries on the tour. Click here to view the map. The website also offers the New Mexico Wine Passport Program, in which players collect stamps as they visit the wineries and wine festivals around the state, becoming eligible for great prizes. Click here to view more info.
The New Mexico Wine Wine Growers Association also contains a niftly calendar listing wine events around the state. Click here for the calendar.
I've visited a few wineries in New Mexico, including Estrella del Norte Vineyards in Nambe, where I recently attended a great event pairing wine and chocolate, led by chef Rocky Durham and The ChocolateSmith owners, Jeff and Kari Keegan. On a rainy spring evening, our group nibbled on decadent, artisanal chocolate offerings, matched with wines from Estrella. http://www.estrelladelnortevineyard.com/
Another great place for wine sampling is the award-winning Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, maker of sparkling wine as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Visit the tasting room, where you can taste Gruet Brut and Gruet Demi Sec, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Rose and other varietals. http://www.gruetwinery.com/
I also love Vivac Winery in Embudo, which houses a tasting room, a contemporary art gallery, a chocolate shop offering truffles and a seasonal Happy Hour with live music. http://vivacwinery.com/
Happy Wine Trails to you!