Monday, October 6, 2008

Grape Harvest in Corrales, NM

Corrales – September 2008
Since the village of Corrales is my home I take a special interest in our local wineries. Both Corrales Winery and Milagro Vineyards have been producing high-quality wines for years. This was the first time I had the opportunity to participate in a grape harvest, however. I plan to stop short of actually making wine, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. When you have a passion for wine, it is sometimes hard to draw the line.

Harvesting the Grapes
Surrounding the winery and tasting room of Corrales Winery are two fields of Muscat grapes. Looking across Corrales Road, the Sandia Mountains loom, serene in the stillness of a Saturday morning. There were about twenty of us, decked out in wide-brimmed hats and carrying shears or curved-blade knifes suited to the work of severing the clusters from the vine. The grapes we were harvesting are used to make Muscat Canelli, one of Corrales Winery’s most popular wines. In Keith Johnstone’s hands it is crafted into a lush wine that isn’t overly sweet, but makes a killer dessert wine I’d pair with just about any fruit-based concoction.

I still remember cutting one fat cluster of golden yellow grapes, be speckled with darker accents and visualizing it being replaced by a bottle in my hand. Naturally, I had to sample a few grapes to see what they tasted like. The rich juice caressed my tongue as I spit out the seeds and indulged in classic Muscat flavors; sweet, musky, and grapey. After that first taste I had to discipline myself against being over-indulgent. The idea was to pick the grapes, after all.

One bit of excitement came about while we were removing the black netting that covers the vines to protect them from birds. A 5 to 6 foot Bull snake had become ensnared in the netting. A yearly incident I later learned. While I wasn’t going to see if my gloves would protect me from snake bite, two of our intrepid harvesters held down the squirming reptile until they could cut away the netting covering his body like a Gordian knot. Mouth wide open, fangs showing, and with a loud hiss, he made his feeling known. Once free of the entangling threads he was tossed up on the culvert walkway and slithered away, without a show of gratitude. Snakes can be like that.

Once all the grapes were picked and brought down to the winery, a distance of thirty feet, we went into the backyard for a lunch feast. Al Knight, who recently opened Acequia Vineyards and Winery in Corrales, had cooked up steaks, chicken, and sausages to go with the rest of the spread. I don’t think this is typical of grape harvesting though, otherwise everybody would be doing it. Nonetheless it put a wonderful cap to the day. I also quickly signed up for next year. Who knows, I may be the one to free the snake next year?

The Muscat grape is of the species vitis vinifera and is believed to the oldest domesticated grape in the world. There is a theory that many grapes of the vitis vinifera sprang from the Muscat. Most wine regions in the world make use of this grape, typically for sweeter or dessert wines but also in blends. It is also the basis of Muscato D’Asti, a very popular Italian lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine from Piedmont, Italy, and is one of the three grapes permitted in Spanish Sherry (Jerez). I’d call that a well-traveled grape.

Other wines from Corrales Winery include Cabernet Franc, one of my personal favorites, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese depending on grape availability. One or more blends that change from year to year, round out the reds. Riesling is another popular wine the winery does well. Check out the tasting room with its expansive views of the Sandia Mountains, and enjoy a glass or bottle under the outdoor covered patio. But don’t wait too long, many of these wines sell out early. Check out their website for tasting room hours and contact information at

Milagro Harvest
There is something very special about living in an area surrounded by grape vines, and then sitting on a patio and enjoying the fruit of the harvest. Not every place is as blessed as our village in this regard. Milagro Vineyards wines come from grapes planted in Rick and Mitzi Hobson’s vineyards and by grape growers they contract with in the surrounding area. These are places I pass every day on my way home. After I began drinking Corrales wines I found I’d developed an almost proprietary feeling about the vines, the grapes, and the wines made from them.

Because Rick likes to check the grapes each morning before deciding when to pick, a harvest party like we had at Corrales Winery is more difficult to plan. I decided tasting his wine and getting information on the harvest would work better here. The new tasting room will soon be set up for scheduled tasting hours. For now, you’ll need to make an appointment to taste his wines, but it is worth the visit.

As you can guess, Rick is a very hands-on guy, pays close attention to his vineyard as well as those he contracts with, and uses French oak to age his wines. The results are obvious when you taste them. His Merlot is a perennial favorite at my house, the Corrales Red is a very good value blend, the Chardonnay exhibits the kind of fruit found in French whites, and his Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon flit between New and Old World styling. Vin ordinaire this stuff is not.

At a Milagro tasting in late September, I tasted wines that had now spent months in the bottle since my previous visit. The 2006 Chardonnay had really opened up since then, which is also a characteristic of French Chardonnays of the Burgundy persuasion. They need time in the bottle to really show off their complexity. Buttery notes without malolactic fermentation (MLF) add to the depth of this wine, and provides rich natural flavors. In fact, it brought me back to the California Chardonnays of the eighties, when MLF and death by oak bludgeoning was still in the future. The delicate handling of the oak and a long satisfying finish make this one very special. Rick has also tweaked the label graphics, and Wilbur the pig looks more self-satisfied than ever.

The 2006 Zinfandel provided another flashback to when I was sampling Lytton Springs Zinfandels in Dry Creek Valley while swatting away the fruit flies in their barn-cum tasting room. Ah, the good old days! This wine announces itself on your palate with fresh spicy berry flavors, but without thickening your tongue with too much jam. In other words, this well-balanced wine will also pair with food. Check out their website for updated information at If you want to wake up your palate to the honest flavors of a hand-tended wine, Milagro Vineyards is the place to go. Salut!

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