Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Must Have New Mexico Wines

Corrales – October 2008
A common question I receive, as do all wine writers I imagine, is: “What is your favorite wine?” It follows the basic form of, “What is your favorite x?” The “x” can be wine, food, color, movie, etc., and it often gives the querent insight into the responder’s value judgments. It also gives me fits. Do I even have an absolutely favorite wine, and will this stand for all time? Can I post my favorites with qualifications? We all have qualifications around this question.

Recently I was asked to join a nation-wide group answering that very question about their favorite wines in a particular region. I picked two white and two red wines that I think deserve recognition within New Mexico, which is my home state. The wines I chose came from wineries I have a high regard for as well, and which I believe have a bright future. Time will tell, but many indicators suggest that New Mexico wines are poised to make a big impact nation-wide, and I don’t mean just Gruet.

Milagro Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay: Rick and Mitzi Hobson began planting grapes in Corrales, which is just north of Albuquerque, in 1985 and opened the winery in 1999. Rick is a hands-on guy who exemplifies the saying, “great wines are made in the vineyard.” While I usually prefer the Milagro reds, his 2006 Chardonnay is a step or two above others within our state.

Buttery notes are obtained without malolactic fermentation (MLF) and resting on the lees adds 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 French oak and a long satisfying finish make this one very special. The Milagro Chardonnay is also a very versatile food wine, with the kind of crispness that only comes from grapes not put through MLF, the death-knell of food-friendly wines.

This wine has more in common with Burgundian Chardonnay than Californian. After all, when a Charles Shaw 2005 Chardonnay wins a double gold in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, what does that tell you about the state of Chardonnay in the Golden State?

La Chiripada 2007 Viognier: This winery located in Dixon just south of Taos is one of many creating good wines from the Viognier grape. The high altitude of the winery at 6000 feet means very cool nights during the growing season. At this location they predominantly plant French hybrids to handle the radical weather changes this area is subjected to. Although not yet a defined AVA, the Embudo Valley is beginning to make a name for itself with both La Chiripada and Vivac Winery down the road producing very interesting and quality wines.

The 2007 Viognier has a floral bouquet of pears and peaches, with undertones of other stone fruit. I particularly liked the mineral notes that accompany the long citrusy finish, which reminded me of a Sancerre. Good acidity means this is also a food wine, and it paired brilliantly with a seared Ahi and ginger dish I prepared to go with it.

Luna Rossa 2004 Barbera: Paolo D’Andrea comes from a long line of Italian winemakers, and is one of the most knowledgeable grape growers and wine producers in New Mexico. He manages New Mexico Vineyards, Inc., the largest in the state, supplying grapes to many NM and Texas wine producers. He opened Luna Rossa in 2001 and has been crafting fine wines, many using Italian grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Barbera. Many New Mexico and Texas wineries source their fruit from New Mexico Vineyards, which means Paolo’s influence and his vineyard management style are impacting many other wineries that are more than happy to have Paolo’s grapes.

His latest Barbera is big, mouth-filling and earthy, with red and black berry flavors and black cherry. Long a fan of Shenandoah Valley Barbera wines, I can now add Luna Rossa to my list of favorite makers of this grape. I could easily have added one of six other red wines I tasted recently, but since this is one of my favorite grapes, I’ll stick with the Barbera. For my money Luna Rossa is on the cusp of great things with their wines, particularly the reds.

Corrales Winery 2005 Sangiovese: Keith Johnstone made the first New Mexico wine I fell in love with; a Cabernet Franc. Since then I’ve brought home Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese wines as well. I probably stock as much of his wine as any producer in my wine cellar. The fact that his winery is only a short six mile drive from my house only sweetens the pot. If I want to see how any of my wines are doing, I only need to stop by, sample, hope I’m not enticed to buy more, and see where each wine is heading.

The 2005 Sangiovese has dense tannins and muted flavors until it begins to open up. Most red wines will benefit from a little time to breathe. Some of them seem to be eager to scream out of the bottle, and then settle down once they know they are free. This Sangiovese is more on the shy side, and is somewhat closed until it has had at least 20 minutes breathing time in the glass or decanter/carafe. It all has to do with a wine’s personality. I don’t want to get fully anthropomorphic about this, but for most wine lovers, it’s an easy way to convey some attributes of a wine’s character.

Once this wine has decided it’s time to come out, it reveals both red and black fruit flavors including dark cherry with an acidic backbone, and the tannins settle in to black pepper. This wine should continue to develop over the next few years. I’ve paired it with a number of dishes and it always manages to deliver, from grilled meats to pesto chicken.

If you are new to New Mexico wines, or have not tried them in several years, you owe it to yourself to sample our Wines of Enchantment. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the chance to plug my book again.) Salut!

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