Monday, September 15, 2008

Wines with a Southern Exposure

One of the best wine tours to take in New Mexico covers Las Cruces, Deming, and Tularosa. I recently completed just such a tour, visiting several wineries as well as viewing our largest vineyard; New Mexico Vineyards, Inc. in Deming. Using Las Cruces as my base of operations, I was able to canvas a range of wine producers with very different philosophies of growing grapes and making wine.

So why would anyone but a wine guy do such a tour? If your impression of a winery was formed at one of our festivals, you may be missing the best they have to offer. Typically, a winery brings their most popular wines to a festival, and makes their biggest sales. In New Mexico, many of these wines are sweet or specialty wines, such as chocolate or Chile-infused wines. These are often the big money makers so they receive more attention than they deserve. If you are like me and prefer drier wines, then a winery is the place to go.

First up was La Vina Winery, which skims our border with Texas, El Paso. Nestled in the Mesilla Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), it is the state’s oldest winery located in an area that saw America’s first grapes planted in about 1630. I sampled some of Ken and Denise Stark’s offerings, which included a well done Semillon among the whites. The Cabernet Sauvignon competes very well with under $40 Napa Cabs, and it doesn’t cost nearly that much.

I was grateful to Denise for guiding me to the winery as MapQuest seemed intent on giving me a tour of La Union. Instead, use the map on their website. The next day I drove to Deming, stopping first at St. Clair Winery. I called for directions this time as the MapQuest route looked more like a tour of the entire Southwest. Maybe the program doesn’t work in Southern New Mexico? Thankfully, the counterperson in the tasting room provided a more direct and easier to follow route.

The DH Lescombes wines, named for the founders, are still my favorites, but check out the other labels: St. Clair and Blue Teal being the most prominent. The Mademoiselle label seems to be going away as I only found one varietal, a Sauvignon Blanc listed. Too bad, I really enjoyed fanaticizing about the cowgirl on the label.

New Mexico’s largest winery is also known as Southwest Wines, the umbrella under which all the labels are produced. Their vineyards are located near Lordsburg, and are within the Mimbres Valley AVA, which stretches from Deming to Silver City. They also have a bistro/tasting room in Las Cruces and another in Albuquerque close to Old Town that I make a regular stop for food and wine. Check them out.

Since my next stop was not too far from St. Clair on Pine Street, I decided to ignore the convoluted instructions once again. This time, however, I should have followed them as Pine terminated in an entrance ramp for highway 10 headed toward Arizona. Off to my left, I watched Luna Rossa Winery fall off behind me on the other side of the highway. Fourteen miles later I turned back, getting off on West Pine, which is also the eastbound frontage road. Rats! I sincerely hope you laugh at my mistakes, but don’t repeat them.

I tasted nine Luna Rossa reds, including wonderful Barbera and Tempranillo wines. Keep in mind; I use a spit bucket so I can sample many wines. OK, I did swallow a couple of these. It’s hard not to; they’re rich, earthy, and reminiscent of Italian and Spanish wines. Since Paolo D’Andrea comes from several generations of Italian wine makers, that’s not too surprising. I have been a fan of Paolo’s wines for years, and his latest releases can compete with the best nation-wide.

Sylvia D’Andrea graciously guided me from the tasting room to the New Mexico Vineyards, which Paolo manages as well as his own vineyards. Three hundred acres and thirty six varieties of grapes are grown here, as well as a nursery of 100,000 plants. Many New Mexico and Texas wineries source their grapes from here. For more information on Paolo D’Andrea, see my blog “Paolo’s Grapes”.

When Paolo arrived he immediately set to work, taking the harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grapes and expertly loading them with a forklift. In between, we exchanged a few words as the semi-trailer was filling with grapes. Watching him in action, I realized where the Eveready Bunny learned his non-stop drum pounding. The man is tireless.

Finally, I headed for home by going through Tularosa. The Tularosa Basin is not yet an AVA, but will become one soon as land is constantly being given over to grape production. Here along highway 54/70 you’ll find Arena Blanca and Heart if the Desert just down the road from each other. Both focus on pistachios as well as wine. I forgot to ask which came first, but I’d bet it was nuts. Heart of the Desert is currently expanding their grape production, and I’ll be watching this development with keen interest.

My last stop was, appropriately, Tularosa Vineyards. David Wickham began planting grapes in 1985, and recently turned over the wine making duties to his son, Chris. I was in time to see him crushing grapes he’d just received from Paolo. Watching grapes go from harvest to crush was a real thrill for me. You don’t often get to see the labor, and love that goes into wine making, but this brought the reality into sharp focus.

The thought of all that work made me very thirsty, so after a tour of the facility, Chris took me back inside to try some of their wines. While I focused on the reds, I was impressed with the broad selection of wines offered. As I’ve mentioned before, the premium New Mexico wine makers experiment with many different types of grapes, looking for the optimum fruit to make their wine. This pioneering spirit is one of the reasons many of these wineries should be on the US wine map as well as New Mexico’s.

Tasting wines and talking with the winemaker is one of the special joys of this tour, and Tularosa Vineyards did not disappoint. Nor did the time I spent with Chris. While many people extol the value of family, wine makers express it better than most. How many industries can you think of that have sons and daughters eager to go into the same line of work as their parents?

The majority of wines I sampled on this tour don’t show up at wine festivals. By touring a winery you can sample many wines in limited supply and only sold there or in limited distribution. I’d guess there were at least a dozen wines I fell in love with that were not available at wine festivals. If you’re lucky, you’ll also have the opportunity to talk to the winemaker and learn more about the renaissance in wine that is New Mexico today. Salut!

The wine question for today: What do you think of sweet and specialty wines? Do you love them, hate them, or ignore them? Results will be posted on this wine blog.

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