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!

Monday, October 6, 2008

2008 New Mexico Wine Festivals: a Review

Taos, July 2008

Another wine festival season is coming to a close in New Mexico and there are good things to report. The first festival, new this year, was held in the village of Corrales just north of Albuquerque. Boasting quilts as well as wine, the Corrales Quilt & Wine Fair was celebrated Mother’s Day weekend. I was there giving wine talks on a host of subjects, some of which I’ll be covering in future blogs.

It was a first for the village, and a first for me to talk about wine without having a glass in my hand – except to demonstrate my world famous swirling technique. Hey, it’s not everybody that can swirl wine in those diminutive festival glasses without spilling a drop! By the end of the day, I was so ready for a glass of wine. Fortunately, my pals at the local wineries were there to provide me with generous pours.

July - Toast of Taos
The Southwest Wine Competition held in Taos in late June is followed by the Toast of Taos the week of July Fourth. The winners of the competition are then featured at the various wine dinners during the festival week. The competition this year included wines from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. I was privileged to witness the entire judging series.

During the competition the support staff verifies the temperature of each wine, pours tastes into approximately 6 wines of a particular grape, such as Chardonnay, and brings them out to the judges. There were approximately 12 tasters at two tables to judge each flight of wines. Since no labels are on display each wine is judged on its appearance, bouquet, and taste from the initial attack through the mid-palate and on to the finish.

To qualify as a judge you’d need to pass a one year program covering all aspects of wine judging. Sorry to burst your bubble if you were thinking of volunteering for the next one. I interviewed several of the judges as well as attending the wine dinners – Oh, the busy life of a wine writer. Not that I have any complaints, mind you.

The Toast of Taos is in its third year and much of the success is due to the inexhaustible energy of Sally Trigg of Holy Cross hospital. The hospital has sponsored the event since its inception. Sally and her volunteers put their hearts into making it a success and I have no doubt that next year’s Toast will be even better.

Dining and Lodging in Taos
Taos has many fine restaurants including the Trading Post Café just south of Taos. The façade, which does call to mind a trading post, belies the interior, where very well-prepared food fills the rooms with enticing aromas. Most of the Southwestern wines I sampled at the dinners were very well made, and indicate a shift to higher quality as the winemakers better understand the terroir of Southwest AVAs. Many judges commented that they believe the general quality level of the wines offered for judging have noticeably improved. This confirms my own belief that better crafted wines are coming from this part of the country.

If you are planning on attending next year’s Toast, or other wine events in Taos, the Taos Inn ( should be your first choice for where to stay. This historic inn encompasses several outbuildings all interconnected with atriums and courtyards that invite a leisurely stroll. Just off the main entrance is Doc Martin’s Restaurant, named after a much loved country doctor from the 1920-30s and contains several rooms and courtyards to handle any diner’s whimsical choice of atmosphere and food. The wine list, prepared by Craig Dunn, is extensive and imaginatively designed, and more suggestive of the Four Seasons in NYC than a southwestern outpost. The restaurant has won the prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 20 years in a row, which will come as no surprise once you’ve dined there.

I returned to the Taos Inn for July Fourth weekend, bringing my wife, and we attended an outstanding wine dinner at Bravo!, just south of downtown Taos. The “!” is part of the name, just in case you thought I was being dramatic. The restaurant featured many of the medal winners of the previous month’s competition. Chef-owner Lionel Garnier was on hand to bathe in the applause he evoked whenever he came out to see how the dinner was going. They even provided us with two intriguing dinner guests to converse with and comment over the wine. Sadly, the restaurant closed its doors in August, but the memory of that dinner will remain.

Although I’ve only been to Taos a few times, its stimulating atmosphere always hooks me. This is a place your feet compel you to canvas, even if you’re not a power walker. While I can’t comment on all the fine wines I sampled, I’d like to focus on a few I think deserve your consideration.

Guy Drew Vineyards ( makes very impressive wines, particularly the reds. The 2004 Syrah won a gold medal and best red award from the Southwest Wine Competition. I was in the back room with the support staff while they set up the flights of wine for the judging and one of the helpers said, “You gotta try this Syrah.” This Syrah is one of those obvious must-have wines that you just want to cozy up to in your favorite chair and sip long into a wintry night. This was my first heads-up alert to Colorado wines, but definitely not my last.

I took home a Guy Drew 2004 Meritage and left the half-full bottle (obviously, I’m an optimist) in my wine cellar after using a vacuum sealer, thinking I’d finish it the next day. The next day ended up being a week later. Knowing most of my opened reds don’t last more than a day or two I was sure I’d be using the Meritage as cooking wine. In fact, it was still showing good fruit and most of the flavors were still there! That was a first. Check them out before they realize what a bargain their wines are and raise prices.

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey ( ) was another gold and silver winner that is producing fine wines. I’m a big fan of Cabernet Franc and their 2006 vintage was well executed with classic Cab Franc flavors. The 2006 Reserve Merlot was also excellent and both were silver medal winners. Still a young winery, it was established in 2002, the numerous medals the winery has already garnered suggest that this is one to watch.

While there are many wine festivals in New Mexico, few can match the location of Taos and the many fine restaurants and lodging landmarks it offers. Put it in your plans for next year, I know I will. Salut!

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!

Wine Tasting with Captain Andy: The Vog Blog

Princeville, Kauai – June 2008
While sea cruises around the Hawaiian Islands are not something I do every year, and I’m there every year, it seemed like a good idea this time. Since the island of Kauai is our usual destination and the Captain Andy cruises our favorites, a sunset cruise looked to be made to order. For once I could let someone else do the driving.

If you’re not familiar with Kauai, the Garden Isle, you’ve seen parts of it in countless movies, including Fantasy Island on TV. It lies at the top of the Hawaiian chain of islands, with only little Niihau, the Forbidden Isle above it. It’s been my favorite island for close to forty years. I’ve hiked it, flown over it in helicopter, sailed around it in all manner of craft, swum most of its beaches, and biked all the accessible parts including climbing up Waimea canyon, a peak experience. Well, the downhill part, anyway.

Most sunset cruises involve punch-less Mai Tai punches and typical island fast food -and not tasty, fast-disappearing fare at that. Nonetheless, the Captain Andy cruises include good crews, reasonable fare, and boating under sail. It always seemed odd to me, boarding a 50 foot sailboat to motor around the island.

This time, however, we had the problem of vog. I’m not sure if this is a new term, but it means a fog-like haze created by wind-sown particulates from a volcano. The volcano in this case is Kilauea on the Big Island (Hawaii), which has been active since January of 1983, making it the longest continually active volcano in recorded history. It is also the youngest volcano in the chain that comprises the Hawaiian Islands. Just like a troublesome youth to call attention to himself, don’t you think?

The Hawaiian name "Kilauea" means "spewing" or "much spreading," apparently in reference to the lava flows that travel almost 7 miles before reaching the sea, creating a huge steam cloud. During our cruise in mid-June of 2008, Kilauea Volcano’s noxious outpouring, hastened by a Kona wind, were moving all the way up the Hawaiian chain to our little island at the top. Hardly fair, I thought. That did not stop Captain Dave from expounding on points of historic interest on our southern excursion of Kauai, nor descriptions of which movie was shot at which place, and what key scene of the movie the shot came from. As an occasional screenwriter, I appreciated this a lot.

It also took our minds off the vog, and when the sun appeared as a hazy brownish red globe, low in a washed out sky we were still in the thrall of our sailing and wine tasting journey. The quality wines were a surprise to me. In the past, I often opted for a watered-down Mai Tai, which should tell you something about the quality of the wine on most cruises.

Not so this time. I later learned that Capt. Andy has connections with a local wine distributor, and obtains good wines at a reasonable enough savings to offer them to us on his cruises. Lucky us. Besides enjoying being on the ocean, I also got to savor a Chilean Merlot Reserva while I glimpse the entourage of Dolphins we’d attracted. The white wines were also good quality, and if the food was not as inspired as the wine, at least they complimented them.

Since I’m also the Wine Maestro, orchestrating food and wine for multi-course dinners, the thought occurred to me that pairing food and wine, ala tapas, or little tastes as the Spanish define it, might be a great way, to cruise Kauai’s fabled coast. Vog or no vog. Salut!