Part 1: The First Vines
Grapes were first grown in the New World near the middle Rio Grande River of New Mexico. Initially, Franciscan monks’ only access to sacramental and drinking wine was from casks shipped from their home country, Spain. And, it had to enter through the ports in Mexico and thenceforth northward to Nuevo Mexico – a journey of several months. As wine exports provided one fourth of Spain’s foreign revenue, a 1595 law forbade export of vines to the New World. Around 1629, the Franciscan padres, tired of the logistics and expense, smuggled vines from Spain to New Mexico, a classic example of our New Mexican do-for-self ingenuity. A Franciscan and a Capuchin planted those first vines near what is now the city of Socorro. Appropriately, the variety was the Mission grape, a vitas vinifera and it is still going strong in the state.
There are now twenty plus wineries in New Mexico producing about 350,000 gallons of quality wine on 1200 acres (circa 5 square kilometers.) While substantial, this is still less than was produced during the heyday of New Mexican wine making. Production rose from 16,000 gallons in 1870 to 908,000 gallons in 1880 with twice the acreage of the vineyards in present-day New York state. Alas, floods, then Prohibition, then more floods put paid to the industry. The historic 1943 flood kicked the final leg from under the state’s wine makers. It is only in the last score of years that wine-making has enjoyed a renaissance, especially with cold-hardy French-Hybrid varieties pushed by European investors.
We frequently have out-of-state visitors, as does almost everyone who is fortunate enough to live near Santa Fe, and one of the things we always try to do is visit the vineyard nearest us: Estrella del Norte Vineyard owned and worked by Richard and Eileen Reinders. They have a beautiful tasting room and host parties and neighborhood pot-lucks where their wines are available. Richard’s wines, along with many other New Mexican wines, have won numerous awards. Here in the Land of Enchantment wineries feel free to break the bounds of tradition and experiment. Probably the best-selling wine in our northern part of the state is a merlot laced with chocolate. Although I am more of a traditionalist in my wine enthusiasms, it’s not bad and I suspect will introduce many non-drinkers to the gift of the grape.
Article © 2013 Wilbur Norman