Viticulture never ceases to amaze me. I had plenty of time to entertain this thought yesterday while making the drive from Albuquerque to Denver. As I glanced upon the beautiful but desolate landscape of New Mexico, it was hard to imagine any crop surviving in these harsh conditions. It was even harder to imagine that Gilbert Gruet, the founder of Albuquerque’s Gruet Winery, recognized that this was the land that would provide the grapes for his future wine venture.
Gilbert Gruet, born in France in 1931, produced Champagne for over thirty years before searching for a spot in the United States to produce sparkling wine in 1983. Gilbert found the land in Sonoma County and the Napa Valley to be rather pricy. While visiting New Mexico, he came across some European winemakers growing grapes in the southern part of the state, near the town of Truth or Consequences. Gilbert was impressed with the quality of the grapes and property in the area was very cheap. He purchased some land near the sparsely populated town of Engle and planted a vineyard of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
From its humble beginnings, Gruet Winery has evolved into a thriving business, producing approximately 120,000 cases with distribution to all fifty states. Gruet’s already strong reputation continues to grow. One of the more exciting events in the winery’s history occurred just this past winter, when Wine Spectator rated Gruet’s Blanc de Noirs Non-Vintage as number 43 on its Top 100 Wines of the Year for 2011.
I discovered Gruet when reading the Wine Bible several years back, as the winery was mentioned as a top American sparkling wine producer. My initial reaction was probably similar to many who have heard about Gruet but have not tasted their wines, something along the lines of, “New Mexico sparkling wine? How good can that really be?” My brother chose to attend Physician Assistant’s school in Albuquerque, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Gruet on a couple of occasions. My most recent visit was this past Saturday, April 28th. Lori Ann McBride, Gruet’s Sales and Marketing Manager, showed us around the facility and proved very knowledgeable when describing the steps taken to conform with the Methode Champenoise.
Gruet is located just off of Interstate 25, which runs North-South through Albuquerque. There are no rolling vineyards surrounding the winery. To no doubt appease those that might be taken aback by the urban location–I’m certainly not one of them–there are a few rows of vines growing out front. The winery is large, 45000-square-foot large, and features a very nice tasting room with cool displays of antique wine corkers. A short walk through the doors in the back of the tasting room reveals immense stainless steel tanks, the enormous grape press, and of course, countless bottles of aging, sparkling wines.
Gruet’s vineyards are located just a few hours from the Mexican border. It gets very hot in the summer, with average temperatures in the low to mid-90s. With an elevation of 4000+ feet, there are drastic cool downs at night, with the temperature fluctuating as much as 30 degrees in a day. It’s extremely dry, but the nearby Elephant Butte Reservoir provides the irrigation crucial to the vines’ survival. The sandy soil found in the area has proven very suitable for Gruet’s grapes. In the early years, the Gruets sent a sample of the soil to Champagne for testing and were encouraged by the results.
A majority of Gruet’s vineyards are planted to accommodate its sparkling wine portfolio, dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plantings. There is also some Chenin Blanc and Syrah planted for Gruet’s smaller still wine production. As soon as the grapes are harvested, they are shipped by refrigerated trucks to the winery.
So how good can New Mexico wines really be? When it comes to Gruet’s wines, I find myself using “great” just as often as I use “good”. The Non-Vintage Sparklers range in price from $14.00-17.00 and there are some phenomenal values on the list. Stylistically, I would classify these wines as crisp and fruit-forward. The super-valued Blanc de Noirs, which I discussed in a past post, has received the most acclaim. I retasted the Blanc de Noirs and the Brut, Gruet’s best seller, and I actually prefer the Brut. They also make a nice Brut Rose. Stay tuned for tasting notes on the Brut and the Brut Rose in Thursday’s $20 Below post.
Gruet’s Vintage/Reserve wines were a real treat and I can’t wait to write up the tasting notes for my next $20 Above post. Without revealing too much, the 2003 Gruet Grand Reserve was beautifully complex, but the wine that I kept talking about on the drive back was the Gruet 2007 Grand Rose, a truly unique effort. These wines are priced nicely, ranging from $24.00-42.00.
Gruet also produces some still wine, including a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and a Barrel-Select Pinot Noir. I tasted the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. The Pinot Noir was definitely my favorite of the still wine group, featuring notes of black cherry, earth, and a peppery spice.
At first mention, it might be surprising to hear that wines from New Mexico are being sold in all fifty states. A taste or two of Gruet’s solid portfolio should remove any surprise. They make some very serious wines. Fortunately for wine drinkers, they’re well-priced and readily available.