Most of my readers know I’m a little obsessed with terroir and how it manifests itself in grape production and its ultimate influence on the aroma and taste of the wine that is bottled. I live in the southern part of New Mexico near the Mesilla Valley AVA, and I frequent wineries with bistros in Las Cruces, but who produce wine in the Mimbres Valley AVA. My favorite American Viticultural Area in New Mexico, however, is the Middle Rio Grande AVA. I think some of the best wineries in the US are located in the region just south of Belen to just north of Albuquerque.
Because I am always in the middle of some wine certification or another, I recently spent a lot of time reading about Napa Valley. In my reading I discovered that Napa has quite a marked span of vineyards at different altitudes. There are vineyards at 200 ft. above sea level and vineyards at 2200 feet above sea level. The vineyards above 2000 feet were referred to as “high altitude” vineyards and the article went on to bemoan the struggles of those wineries to ripen grapes, etc.
I had to laugh, y’all. The Mesilla Valley AVA sits at about 3900 feet and higher. The Mimbres Valley in Deming is around 4300 feet but goes almost up to 5000. The Middle Rio Grande AVA averages 5500 feet. Now I’ve visited wineries in all of these AVAs. I’ve tasted the wines and interviewed the winemakers. Not once did a single winemaker tell me about any struggles with growing grapes, or refer to their vineyards as “high altitude.”
BUT they are high altitude compared to the rest of the world, and New Mexico has vineyards that are even higher where winemakers truly know the challenges of growing grapes at a higher altitude where the winters are bitter cold and the threat of a spring freeze can wipe out their livelihood for a year or longer.
I recently took a trip up to the Taos area of New Mexico to check out this “high altitude” wine. I couldn’t wait to “taste” the climate and terroir of the wines produced in these mountainous areas along the northern Rio Grande River. I was looking for first-hand experience with true high-altitude wines. In the two days I was there, I visited Vivác , La Chiripada, Black Mesa, El Alamo, and Embudo Valley Vineyards. Each of these wineries will be featured in an upcoming post on Wine of Enchantment, but I thought it best to write a little about high altitude wines in general and how they differ from wines grown at lower elevations. I have a much greater appreciation, now, for the wines of northern New Mexico.
Obviously, in the world of winemaking, the term “high-altitude” encompasses a broad range. In the Taos area growing grapes is called “heroic viticulture.” That’s a real thing. Heroic viticulture is growing grapes under extreme conditions – and one of those conditions is altitude. Although climate, latitude, access to water, and other terroir related factors help determine the variety and quality of wine, there are some common characteristics and challenges shared by grape-growers in high altitude vineyards.
There are not many varieties of grapes being grown up in the Taos area. A lot of the wineries source most of their grapes from New Mexico Vineyard in Deming. Blends are very popular in the high-altitude wineries, as are wines made partially from apples. (Don’t think cider, apple wines taste nothing like cider). When I visited the wineries named above, I only asked for tastings of estate wines and blends that featured grapes from their vineyards. By tasting only those wines, I was able to get a really good feel for the qualities of a good high-altitude wine.
When I think of high altitude, I think of cold—and it was really cold in Taos the week before Thanksgiving. There was even snow on the ground. During the day, however, it was pleasant outside, and I had no need for a jacket. The extreme range of diurnal temperatures is good for the grapes. Cold nights slow the ripening process down, thus preserving the acidity of the grape which results in a more refreshing wine. The warmth of the daytime, however short, allows the grapes to ripen slowly and develop its fruitiness.
In high altitudes, the sunlight is more intense. Grapes keep from getting sunburned by growing thicker skins. Thicker skins often mean more intense flavors, deeper colors, and firmer tannins in the wine. High altitude wines tend, also, to have lower alcohol levels. The biggest concern to grape-growers in the higher altitudes of New Mexico (and anywhere, really), is a late spring frost. Depending on where a vine is in the growth process, frost can wipe out an entire vineyard, a single vine, or just a single bud. Vine keepers are always thinking about prevention and management of frost events.
The wineries I visited were heavily invested in growing only a few varietals, though the winemakers at Vivác had some experimental vineyards where they were trying to grow more uncommon varieties, as well as develop more innovative ways to protect the vines. In general Riesling and Baco Noir were the two main grape varieties.
Other grape varieties being grown at 6,000 feet in New Mexico are Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Seyval Blanc, and even some Pinot Noir. These and other varieties are found in cold climates and high altitudes around the world
Riesling: I won’t dwell on discussing Riesling because you can read more about it here. I will remind my readers, though, that Riesling is an extremely versatile grape that can be made into all types and styles of wine. It’s a perfect wine for holidays and celebrations when you are looking for something other than a sparkling wine.
Baco Noir grapes are a hybrid and frequently looked down upon—even by non-wine snobs. The came into the United States through Canada in the late 1950’s when the U.S. had barely begun to recover from the economic devastation caused by Prohibition. It’s perfectly suited to growing in high altitudes and cold climates. Baco Noir has high acidity, low tannin, and is generally a light to medium bodied wine. It has aromas and flavors of black fruits and ripe plum with earthy flavors and smokey notes. Baco Noir takes really well to oak aging—and it really needs some oak to support the tannic structure. Baco Noir needs a little aging time to soften the acidity and pull out the fruity flavors. While Baco Noir is generally used for blending, the winemakers in northern New Mexico are successfully bottling it as a single varietal. Drink Baco Noir when it’s young. Super good examples can age for 5—maybe even 10 years, but I wouldn’t risk it.
Overall, I found the high-altitude wines to be very crisp and refreshing. They taste like the fresh air of the mountains. While definitely higher in acidity, all of the wines I tasted were fruity and “clean.” The thicker skins of the grapes made for some gorgeous colors of Rosé and intense reds.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the wineries up in the Taos area and I can’t wait to introduce you to them in upcoming articles. As we move into winter, it’s a great time to sit by the fire and try some new wines. All of the wineries I visited will ship their wines to you. At the end of this article, you’ll see the list of wineries I visited. Click on any one of them and order yourself something new. I stocked up on high altitude wines during my trip and I can’t wait to share them with my tasting group.
Thanks for reading! Until next time…
Vivác sources a lot of grapes from New Mexico Vineyard, but they are doing some great work in their estate vineyards. I recommend the Abbott Merlot (red) or the 1725 Dry Riesling (white)
La Chiripada: I recommend the award winning Rio Embudo Red which blends Leon Millot and DeChaunac grown in the Embudo Valley (high altitude) with Cabernet and Shiraz from the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico. If you want to try something tasty and unique, get the Embudo Blanco–an apple wine.
Black Mesa: Black Mesa is best known for it’s ciders, but they do have a few estate wines worth noting. I recommend the Burd Merlot (Red) and the Burd Chardonnay (White). They alos have several Rieslings.
El Alamo: If you want me to select a wine for you, I’m going to recommend El Alamo’s Baco Noir. It is aged in bourbon barrels and is one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. It’s 100% Baco Noir and is an award-winning wine. For a white wine, I recommend their award-winning Estate Dry Riesling.
Embudo Valley Vineyards EVV is a new winery and all of their wines were outstanding. I recommend the Bosque Rose made from 100% Baco Noir. La Bolsa is a sweet white wine (3% Residual Sugar) with Riesling, Vidal Blanc, and Apple. It is so delicioius!
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