New Mexico, New Mexico True, US Travel, Vineyards, Wine, Wine Words

Winespeak: AVAs

I love wine! You probably already knew that. Aaaand… I’m guessing that you love wine, too, or you wouldn’t be at a site called Wine of Enchantment. My love for wine is actually an obsession and goes far beyond visiting wineries and tasting delicious wines. It extends in my thirst (see what I did there) for as much knowledge as I can get about anything having to do with wine. That’s why I can’t just take you on an exciting wine journey EVERY week. If you’re going to do wine with me, you’re going to have to go where I go. So that is why, thanks to the work I’m doing on my American Wine Expert certification, we’re going to have another edition of Winespeak. This week, I’m excited to tell you about AVAs.

Have you ever picked up a bottle of wine and seen the letters AVA on the label?  AVA is the abbreviation for American Viticultural Area and it’s kind of a big deal. When you see AVA on the label OR you see a particular region listed on the bottle, you can know that the grapes were sourced from a very specific geographically defined area.

The precise definition of an American Viticultural Area says an AVA is a delimited grapegrowing region distinguishable by a number of traits, including viticultural features such as soil, climate, elevation, topography, etc. And those specific traits distinguish the region from nearby areas.

Even if you haven’t had the opportunity to taste a Bordeaux, a Burgundy, or a Chablis, you have probably heard of these wines in a positive way indicating they are well-known and possibly exceptional examples of wine. An AVA is the American version of an appellation.

In Europe, Old World grapes come from appellations. European appellations, especially those in France, generally have very strict rules that regulate varietals, farming practices, or quality levels of the grapes grown in an appellation. Some appellations require vineyards to even limit the number of grapes they can produce on a vine. Wine produced in most European appellations must indicate the appellation on the label, and producers are happy to do so because the appellation designation is coveted. Unlike Europe, AVA laws don’t regulate any of that. An American Viticultural Area is strictly a geographic boundary that wine connoisseurs recognize and use to make initial judgements about the wine that is in a bottle. In the United States, winemakers are not required to list the AVA on the bottle’s label– though, personally, I don’t know why they wouldn’t. The one rule about putting the AVA name on the label, is that a minimum of 85% of the wine in the bottle must come from grapes grown within the AVAs boundary.

Since AVAs are defined by grape growing conditions rather than political borders, they are not necessarily confined to a particular county—or even state! More than a dozen AVAs cross borders into as many as four states. To make it even more complicated – as the US government tends to like to do—AVAs can also overlap either partially OR completely. When one AVA exists entirely within another, the small AVA is called a nested AVA. Sometimes people call it a “sub-AVA but that isn’t technically the correct term.

The concept of an American Viticultural Areas was created in 1980 and there are currently 267 American Viticultural Areas. 147 of those are located in….you guessed it!…California. Today, however, I am only concerned about 3 AVAs—the ones found in my beloved Land of Enchantment—New Mexico. The 3 AVAs of New Mexico are the Middle Rio Grande ValleyAVA, the Mimbres Valley AVA, and the Mesilla Valley AVA.

New Mexico is one of the top 20 wine producing states in the U.S. Even more important is that New Mexico is one of the cornerstones of American wine. It was in New Mexico that the first successful Vitis Vinifera vineyards were planted. Vitis Vinifera are the grapevines that came from the Old World. New Mexico was one of the first states to successfully grow grapes from these “imported” vines. New Mexico is also highly successful at growing native American grapes and hybrid varieties.

The Middle Rio Grande AVA

Jaramillo Vineyards

The Middle Rio Grande AVA encompasses more than 275,000 acres of land from Santa Fe to the bosque of the Rio Grande. The AVA is a narrow strip of land centering around the Albuquerque metropolitan area from north to Santa Fe and south to Belen. It was officially designated as an AVA in 1988.

The Middle Rio Grande Valley sits at an altitude between 4,000 to 6,500 feet. What makes this so great is that the semi-arid climate provides the grapes with warm days and cool nights. What that means to the winemaker is that the grapes have all day to bask in the sun develop their sweet sugars, but at night sugar development is shut down allowing the grapes to retain their crisp acidity.  There are many types of Vitis Vinifera, as well as many native American grapes and hybrids grown in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. The most commonly grown are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Viognier. Most of my favorite New Mexico wines are produced by wineries in this AVA. Jaramillo Winery, Sheehan Family Winery, Pasando Tiempo Winery, Gruet Winery, and Black’s Smuggler are among my favorites.

Mimbres Valley AVA

La Esperanza Vineyard

The Mimbres Valley AVA, covering 636,000 acres of semi-desert land, was designated in 1985 and is the largest of the three AVAs in New Mexico. The more than 2000 acres under vine produce some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese grapes in the United States. The terroir of the Mimbres Valley is very similar to the Mendoza region of Argentina.

The AVA encompasses the land surrounding the watershed of the Mimbres River between the towns of Silver City and Deming. The climate in the Mimbres Valley is continental, meaning the temperature variations between the day and night can be extreme. Also the variation in the seasons from a hot, dry summer to a really cold winter can impact the growing season. The Mimbres Valley is also high altitude—4,000-6,000 feet above sea level. The altitude helps moderated the extreme, daily temperature shifts during the growing season. Vineyards benefit from intense desert sunshine during the day, followed by significantly colder nights.  

The clay, sand, and silt mixture of soil in the area are great for viticulture, but with only 9 inches of annual rainfall, grapegrowers generally turn to drip irrigation to water their vines. One of the most beautiful vineyards in the area is La Esperanza. David Gurule has designed a very efficient, water-saving way to water vines. You can read about it in my article, A Little Wine-A Lot of Heart. The red wines produced in the Mimbres Valley are so rich and intense with a firm tannic structure. My favorite wines from this area are Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Syrah. For white wine lovers, Chardonnay, Moscato, and Chenin Blanc are favorites. To get a real taste of the Mimbres Valley AVA wines, check out the varietals from St. Clair Winery (Lescombes Family), La Esperanza, and Luna Rossa.

Mesilla Valley AVA

Rio Grande Winery

The Mesilla Valley AVA, established in 1985, is probably the most near and dear to my heart because I spend most of my time harvesting grapes and drinking wine down in the southern part of New Mexico. The AVA runs on both sides of the Rio Grande River from Radium Springs almost to the border of Mexico. A teeny-tiny protion of it spills into western Texas. This hot, dry region covers approximately 280,000 acres, but very few of those are in vine. Still, the vineyards produce beautiful, rich clusters of Mission, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah grapes—just to name a few.

As with the other AVAs, the Mesilla Valley is also considered high altitude though it reaches only to 4300 feet above sea level. Still, the temperature variations in a single day heavily impact the ripening and flavor of the grapes. With an average annual rainfall of only 10 inches, and daily summer temperatures exceeding 100o Farenheit, the Mesilla Valley depends upon the Rio Grande to provide some breezes that will temper the extremes of the climate.

Some of my favorite wineries (all with BEAUTIFUL views) in the Mesilla Valley AVA are Rio Grande Winery, Fort Selden Winery, Sombra Antigua, and La Viña. These wineries produce some of the best white wines in New Mexico—which is not to minimize their red wines in any way!

More AVAs on the Horizon

I’ve spoken to several vintners who are in the process of petitioning and/or advocating for more areas of New Mexico to be designated as an American Viticultural Area. The area nestled between between the current AVAs around the Caballo State Park area has a AVA advocate in Brad Shattuck of Shattuck Vineyards. Shattuck is home to some award-winning Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Another potential AVA is in the northern part of New Mexico in Rio Arriba County just southwest of Taos.

The first step to becoming an American Viticultural area is for vineyard owners or associations is to file an official petition to the Alcoholo and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (TTB). The petition must provide details, with lots of maps, explaining the distinguishing features of the area and the proposed geographical boundaries. A region must prove that it has unique qualities, like microclimate or topography. If the petition is approved, there is a period of public comment that lasts for approximately 60 days. After that, the petition is either approved or rejected.

I’m one of those wine weirdos that can get really excited by things like American Viticultural Areas because they express the terroir of New Mexico.  In case you missed my explanation of terroir in the Backyard Boy post, terroir is the combination of soils, the flowers and vegetation of an area, the sun, and the climate. But, it’s so much more. It’s the particular longitude and latitude of the vineyard, the way the sun hits the vines, the direction and speed of the wind, the rain (or lack there of), and the critters that inhabit the land.  AVAs have been designated as such because their terroir is unique in the greater winegrowing region of New Mexico. Great wine starts with great grapes and the grapes reflect the terroir in which they are grown.

I have 2 great activities that I love to do when I have friends over. If you’ve ever wanted to have a wine party, but didn’t know how to start, try one of these ideas.

Activity One: Take a varietal—Cabernet Sauvignon, for example—and buy a bottle from 3 or 4 wineries in a specific AVA. Conduct a little tasting experiment to see if you and your friends can identify aromas and flavors that come from the terroir. See if there is a similar aroma or flavor theme that runs through all of the bottles.

Activity Two: Purchase a bottle of wine —Chenin Blanc, for example— from one winery in each of the 3 AVAs. Make sure you get the same varietal from each. Do a little tasting with your friends to see if you can highlight the differences in the aromas and flavors of each of the wines. For a super advanced challenge, see if you can figure out which aromas and flavors might come from the terroir and which ones can be attributed to the winemaking process.

Make sure you SEND ME AN EMAIL and let me know how all of your wine tasting is going and what you’ve been able to learn from the wine.

I’d love it if you’d click on the “FOLLOW” button at the bottom of the post (or wherever it shows up) so you don’t miss out on your weekly entertainment. Next week I’m going to give you the insider scoop on maneuvering and surviving a wine festival.

Until next time….