New Mexico Wine Culture: discovering America’s Original Wine Country

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New Mexico can boast a long list of superlatives - some significant, some less so. Oldest - and highest elevation - state capital in the United States. Top producer of chile peppers in the United States. First breakfast burrito (allegedly invented by Tia Sophia's Restaurant in 1975). And - a little-know fact - first wine grapes grown in the United States. Yes, New Mexico is the original wine country - viticulture started here a full 140 years before California planted its vine.

Winemaking here dates back to the early 17th century, and today is thriving, due to favorable growing conditions and increasing sophistication and knowledge of local winemakers. If you're  a wine lover (or just like to drink), you can taste at several excellent wineries and tasting rooms in and around Santa Fe. After all, what better local souvenir to take home than a few bottles of delicious local wine?

What You (Probably) Don’t Know About Winemaking In New Mexico

Winemaking in New Mexico has seen some serious ups and downs. It all started in 1629, when Spanish priests in New Mexico realized that importing sacramental wine from Spain was too costly and difficult and decided to produce the stuff locally. Unfortunately, the Spanish government banned the export of vines from Spain in order to protect domestic winemakers. Resourceful monks smuggled vines from the so-called "Mission" grape - a hardy, sweet varietal - out of Spain and into New Mexico, and by 1633, sacramental wine was being produced by churches in the Upper Rio Grande Valley.

The next big evolution in New Mexican wine came in the late 1800s, after New Mexico became a territory of the United States. Jesuit monks brought varietals and techniques from Italy, and the quality and quantity of the local wine was vastly enhanced. In 1884, the state ranked fifth in the nation for wine production and was well on the way to being a powerhouse producer.

Unfortunately, several instances of severe flooding of the Rio Grande, along with federal Prohibition laws, largely crushed the industry in the early part of the 20th century. Wine production didn't really recover until 1977, when European winemakers and investors began to arrive in Southern New Mexico, attracted by cheap land and wine-friendly microclimates.

Where To Go & What To Taste

Today, there are over 60 wineries in New Mexico producing more than 70 varieties of grapes, spread out across the state. From Santa Fe, you can easily visit several. Here are our recommendations for a wine-focused hour - or several -  in the Santa Fe area.

If you have an hour…

Gruet: French sophistication

In the early 1980s, the Gruet family of France, well-known in France for their production of champagne, were traveling around the Southwestern United States. In Southern New Mexico, they recognized a climate that was ideal for growing sparkling wine grapes - hot days, cold nights, and sandy soil. The climate - and the cheap land - convinced them to move their family and their wine-making operations to the Land of Enchantment in 1984.

Today, you can sample their méthode champenoise sparkling wines - widely recognized as the best American sparkling wine - as well as their excellent still wines, at their tasting room in downtown Santa Fe (their main production facility in Albuquerque also has a tasting room). The Santa Fe tasting room, attached to the Hotel St. Francis, is small and charming, with a shaded outdoor patio and knowledgeable staff who will set you up with a sparkling wine flight - the best way to sample their crisp, clean bubbly.

If you have half a day…

Vivác: Home-grown with Italian influences

Another must-visit winery in the area is Vivác, which has a small tasting room at the Santa Fe Farmers Market Pavilion, as well as a larger tasting location at their vineyards in Dixon. If you have time, we recommend making the hour-long drive to Dixon, a tiny, charming town located on the Rio Grande. You can enjoy your wine - our favorites include the 2014 Syrah, as well as the 2015 Sangiovese - on the tasting room patio overlooking Vivác's vineyards, set against a scenic backdrop of green hills and rocky mesas.

Whichever location you visit, you'll find a range of delicious Italian-style wines to try. The Italian influence comes from the travels of Vivác founders, brothers Jesse and Chris Padberg, who grew up in Dixon and were inspired by the wine culture and traditions of Italy to make high quality wines in Northern New Mexico. They run the winery along with their wives Michele and Liliana, and all four boast impressive levels of wine education - all are certified sommeliers, and the brothers studied winemaking at University of California at Davis, the gold standard for American winemaker training.

La Chiripada: New Mexico winemaking pioneers

If you make it up to Dixon, a stop at La Chiripada winery is also highly recommended. Established in 1977, it is one of New Mexico's oldest wineries, and produces over 20 varieties of wine, sourcing grapes locally, as well as from Southern New Mexico. The tasting room is a white-washed, traditional adobe overlooking one of their vineyards (they also have a tasting room in Taos). We enjoyed several of their full-bodied reds, like a 2014 Dolcetto and a 2014 Shiraz.

If you get hungry…

Because you shouldn't wine taste on an empty stomach, we recommend a stop at Zuly's Café in Dixon for an enchilada plate. We loved both their red and green chile, as well as their outdoor seating area. Chile might not be the ideal pre-wine tasting food, but you are in New Mexico, after all.

If your spouse/friend/group isn't into wine tasting…

The Root Cellar: Sample New Mexico wines without leaving town

If you want to try New Mexico wines but can't convince your fellow travelers to visit tasting rooms, don’t despair! You can still sample some excellent New Mexico wines, and make the non-wine drinkers happy too. Head to the Root Cellar, a cozy underground taproom and gastropub that features a New Mexico-only wine list (as well as a New Mexico-only beer, cider, and mead menu). This is a great place to sample wines from Vivác, Gruet, and other top New Mexico wineries. Plus, it's a friendly spot with tasty, affordable gastropub fare.

Joseph Griffith