Without question, some of this country’s best sparkling wine comes from New Mexico.
Don’t get me wrong – California makes some smashing bubbly. But for an unbeatable combination of quality and value, the sparkling wines from Gruet, an estate some 150 miles south of Albuquerque, really deliver.
I tasted through their selection at an industry event, with Joe Niesley, East Coast Regional Manager for the winery, offering commentary. Later, I followed up with him for more detail. Here’s the scoop.
Gruet’s vineyards are located around the Elephant Butte Reservoir near the town of Truth or Consequences. “The first vines were plated this area by Spanish missionaries in 1592 – nearly 40 years before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock,” says Joe, noting that these were probably among the first vines planted in the US.
What made the site appealing to the Gruet family likely also appealed to the Spaniards: The area offers a grape-growing trifecta of elevation, soil and temperature.
Despite its reputation as a hot, desert state, Joe says that this part of New Mexico “is a cool-climate region. [Vines are planted] at an altitude of 4,200 feet. It doesn’t get overly hot during the summer, and the Santa Ana winds come roaring through everyday around 1 or 2 p.m. The result is a large diurnal temperature swing of up to 40 degrees.”
That means a warm day is followed by a very cool night – picture temperatures dropping from the 80s to the 40s in just a few hours. The sunshine allows grapes to ripen fully, while the cold nights keep the grape’s acidity high and the resulting wine crisp. This one-two punch is “perfect to breed acidity” – the key ingredient in Gruet’s sparkling wines.
Joe also cites the area’s caliche soil as key to the grape’s success. “It’s an alkaline base with lime and sand,” he says, noting that other regions known for their alkaline soil – like Champagne and Chablis – are also known for their superb, brightly acidic wines from Chardonnay.
Which makes a nice segue to discuss Gruet’s wines, most of which are high-acidity sparklers crafted primarily from Chardonnay. (The estate also makes still wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.)
Gilbert Gruet planted the first vines in 1984, with the first harvest in 1987. Gilbert’s son Laurent has been the winemaker from the get-go, establishing the estate’s signature style.
Recently, Gruet introduced two wines that are the result of, as Joe puts it, “getting creative with dosage,” the mix of wine and sugar syrup that is used to top off a bottle before it is corked.
The first wine, dubbed Sauvage, actually has no dosage, which makes it “as dry as you can get,” according to Joe. To mitigate the potential for too-harsh acidity, he says the winemaker will “leave the wine en tirage (ageing with yeast) for longer to help round out the edges.”
The second wine is called Extra Dry and, at 1.8% sugar by volume, is “barely sweeter than a brut.” As Joe explains it, “Rather than adding sugar, dosage adds weight and body to make a luxurious, rounded texture, turning apple and lemon [flavor] to tropical fruit [flavor.]”
As it turns out, these were two of my favorite wines from the tasting, and quite different in their appeal. Here is a summary of the Gruet wines I tried, along with some tasting notes and approximate retail pricing.
Blanc de Noirs NV: This wine was really warm and rich, wrapping around the palate like a cashmere blanket. Without the fuzz, of course! $16
Blanc de Blancs Extra Dry NV: This wine was fresh and fruity – “fun to drink,” I noted – and very nicely sparkly. $16
Blanc de Blancs Sauvage NV: Drink this wine with oysters. It has an earthy, wild quality and stripped-down acidity that makes it great with any manner of crisp, clean cuisine. $18
Blanc de Blancs 2007: This wine is smooth and elegant with a Champagne feel that’s softened by a round, creamy texture. $23
Grande Reserve 2003: This wine is crafted from the tête de cuvée, the first juice pressed from the grapes. It hits you with everything its got, but in the most gentle way possible*. Simply a lovely wine. $45
*The Chardonnay is aged in oak prior to the secondary fermentation. This is atypical, says Joe, and is done delicately to insure the oak doesn’t overwhelm the acidity.
Grand Rosé 2007: This wine is 90% Chardonnay fermented in the Champagne method. Its red color comes from the addition of still (not bubbly!) Pinot Noir**. This is a perky, charming wine that wows with its elegance and finesse. $36
**Joe says the wine is blended prior to the secondary fermentation, a technique that preserves the red fruit flavor and floral aromas.