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Friday, 5 October 2012

Wine in New Mexico

First an apology to any (few probably) who hoped to follow this blog regularly.  I've simply been too busy, or perhaps too lazy, to write it often lately.  But being here in Texas and New Mexico with Alan Byars who encouraged me to start up the blog, my conscience is pricked so here goes again.  I hope I can manage to keep it going from now on.

This entry is about wines in New Mexico.  In 1880 this State was the 5th largest wine producer in the USA.  Thanks to climatic and other setbacks the production shrank to virtually nothing - in the late 20th century it began to revive so that from 10 wineries in 1985 it now has 40, and the volumes have grown from around 8,000 hl in 1997 to over 26,000 today, from 500 ha of vineyards.  In world terms this is still tiny - our home region of Languedoc-Rousillon produces 1000 times as much - 2.75 million hl from 160,000 ha, and California (which produces over 90% of US wine) around 1200 times as much as New Mexico. 

Nevertheless New Mexico is proud of its reviving and strengthening wine industry.  The first thing we had to learn is that most wine is produced away from the vineyards, most of which are in the south of the State.  We found ourselves in the mountains of central New Mexico, over 2000 metres in altitude, with winemakers on our dorrstep and others in the valley near White Sands with a few vineyards nearby - but most makers here and in the north of the State buy their grapes from southern growers.  I have not found an obvious answer to the question "why here?" for makers who choose to vinify grapes grown often hundreds of km away, but it has been our fortune because in one brief visit we have found some excellent wines.

In the valley at Tularosa and Almogordo we tasted some really interesting white wines - Gewürztraminers sweet and dry and Symphony (a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, and among reds Alan bought a really nice barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon though I did not taste this, and I tasted some Sangiovese and Syrah which did not really stand comparison with originals of quite ordinary quality in their French and Italian original guises.  Some of these valley vineyards at least were near the wineries although I think they bought in at least some grapes - the level of knowledge of staff there was at best sketchy. 

But the true revelation was in the town of Ruidoso, near where we are staying, where we found the Noisy Water Winery (Ruidoso in native American language means 'noisy water' so there are a lot of businesses here using that name).  They have two wine ranges there, and we chose to taste the 'select' or 'reserve' range which cost as much as the top wines back in France, but which match them in quality and interest.  We tasted Chardonnay and Sangiovese of really high quality, and a very passable Petite Sirah (a grape we'd tried often in its Mexican guise from off-licences in England in the 1990s). 

Three things about these wineries.  First, most charge for tastings.  I always avoid this in France since most reputable makers offer free tastings - it is simply not the habit here.  But the tasting formulas are inflexible - 6 wines for $10 for example when one might choose to taste only 3 or 4; and one guy told us we were not allowed to share a tasting (I often rely on Mary's 'second palate' to help me judge wines).  Second, the same guy told me it was not permitted to spit - all professional tasters in Europe spit all the time and rarely if ever swallow - they would be on the floor before a quarter of their daily work was done if they did not.  Maybe Americans think it unhygeinic, but it is impracticable if you are driving and going to several producers a day.  Third, all the wineries including the best we've found offer flavoured wines and/or fruit wines.  We did not try chilli (green or red) or chocolate flavours, but Alan did persuade us to try the cherry wine in Tularosa and I still prefer almost any wine made with grapes!

This has been an interesting introduction to a small but growing and improving wine area in the States, and if our travels here lead to further discoveries I'll report further.