In preparation for the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta next week, my post today is for my wine lovers as it is a long and detailed one.  Of course, I am deeply interested in all the details of grape varietals and growing, flavor pallets, etc. but today I am focusing on New Mexican wine growing.  If that isn’t your thing, you may want to skip this one.

Early American settlers found grapes growing wild along the East Coast and assumed that higher quality European varieties would also grow well where the wild grapes grew. But severe winters, disease, and insects caused the imported Vitis vinifera to fail.


Vinifera grapes require mild, dry climates like those in California, Arizona, southern New Mexico, and west Texas.  They may be injured by temperatures below 0°F (-18°C), and their susceptibility to certain diseases and insects restricts their culture to dry climates.


American species (V. labrusca, V. rotundifolia, and others) are winter-hardy and tolerant of many diseases and insects. 'Isabelle', 'Catawba', and 'Concord' were among the first cultivars developed to improve these native grapes. However, American grapes are generally considered inferior to European cultivars for wine and table use.


Through hybridization, the high fruit quality characteristics of the vinifera grapes have been combined with the hardiness and resistance of V. labrusca to develop groups called French and American hybrids. Much of the wine-grape acreage in the East is now planted to cultivars of these groups.


Cultivars (Varieties)

The general types of grapes grown in New Mexico are vinifera, American (V. labrusca), and hybrids (V. vinifera x V. labrusca and other American species).


Vinifera grapes, also called "wine grapes," have skins that adhere firmly to the pulp. These grapes require mild climates with long, hot, dry growing seasons and moderate winter temperatures. In New Mexico, they should be grown only in the southern and southeastern parts of the state. California grows only vinifera grapes.


American grapes are cold hardy and do well in many areas of northern New Mexico and at higher elevations where vinifera grapes are not well adapted. Berries of V. labrusca have a "foxy" flavor and skins that separate easily from relatively soft, acid pulp. 'Concord', grown in the country's Northeast, is the best known of this group.


Many American grape cultivars become chlorotic in alkaline soils unless grafted to tolerant rootstocks. The hot, dry climate and alkaline soils of southern New Mexico are not conducive to the production of most American grape cultivars.


Commercial grape juice, grape concentrate, and grape jelly come almost exclusively from American grapes. Some American cultivars are sold as table or dessert grapes, and some are seedless. Certain American grapes are used for making varietal wines, but usually they are blended with V. vinifera. Most V. labrusca grapes contain too much acid and tannin and too little sugar for high quality wines. However, new varieties developed in the eastern states, such as 'Cayuga White', show promise for making good quality wines.

The third group of grapes grown in New Mexico are hybrids of the American and European cultivars. American hybrids are generally considered to be crosses between the cultivated American-type grape having some inheritance of V. labrusca and the vinifera grape. French hybrids are crosses between the wild American grape (primarily V. rupestris and V. lincecumii) and the European species (V. vinifera). French hybrids and American hybrids combine some of the cold hardiness and disease resistance of V. labrusca with the high fruit quality of V. vinifera. Some of these hybrids may be grown in areas not adapted to vinifera production, such as northern New Mexico. French hybrids are generally used for making wine, but some are good for juice or table use.

The following are descriptions of some American and French hybrid wine varieties that have performed acceptably in north-central New Mexico.


American Hybrids

Norton/Cynthiana (red): It has recently been successfully grown in the middle Rio Grande Valley.  The fruit has very darkly pigmented color and good tannic structure.

Seneca (white): A white table and wine grape. Skin is tender with sweet and aromatic flavor.


French Hybrids

Baco Noir (red): A winter-hardy hybrid produced from a cross of V. vinifera var. Folle Blanche, a French wine grape, and an unknown variety of V. riparia (indigenous American species). Current European Union regulations restrict the use of hybrid varieties, including Baco Noir. It has an established track record of successful vintages in northern New Mexico. Baco Noir produces a medium-bodied, deeply tinted, fruit-forward, acidic red wine with black fruit and caramel aroma. Ageing potential is 5–8 years.

Chardonel (white): This grape is a cross between Seyval and Chardonnay.  It can be finished completely dry or with minimal residual sugar and is amenable to either unoaked or full malolactic fermentation with barrel aging. This versatile variety retains substantial acid levels at ripening and shows potential for sparkling wine production when harvested relatively early at 16–18° Brix.

Chambourcin (red): The grape produces a deep-colored wine with a full aromatic flavor, and no unpleasant hybrid flavors. It can be made into a dry wine or one with a moderate residual sugar level, giving it a pleasant but not overbearing sweetness. Chambourcin wines blend well with vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and can be made into varietal rosé or port-style wines. Chambourcin has gained in popularity in central New Mexico in recent years.

Frontenac (red): Limited plantings in New Mexico.  Aroma and flavor characteristics are dominated by a bold cherry note with hints of black current and general red fruit.

Leon Millot (red): This vine produces an excellent red wine with a distinct berry aroma.

Siegfriedrebe (white): Currently grown primarily in Germany and British Columbia.  Although similar to Riesling, it is not as desirable. It has performed satisfactorily in northern New Mexico.

Traminette (white): Traminette wines have been described as distinctively floral, spicy, perfumed, and fragrant, much like its Gewürztraminer parent.

Valvin Muscat (white): Valvin Muscat has very distinct Muscat grape characteristics.

Vidal Blanc (white): This variety does extremely well in cold climates. This late-ripening variety is popular in Canada and the northern part of the United States, where it produces late harvest, or “ice wines,” rather than table wines. The variety is also successfully grown in New Mexico.

Vignoles (white): This grape, also known as Ravat 51, produces an excellent dessert wine. This fruit can naturally develop high sugar content while the acidity level also remains high.


European Wine Grapes (V. vinifera)

Gewürztraminer (white): Gewürztraminer has met with limited success in some New Mexico vineyards. New Mexico’s lack of fungal disease pressure can be used to advantage when growing this rot-prone variety.

Pinot Noir (red): This breed is known as an ancient variety and is only one or two generations removed from wild vines. Pinot wines are among the most popular in the world, though one of the most difficult to grow. It is most often produced for sparkling wine in New Mexico and harvested early with high acidity.

Pinot Meunier (red): A close relative of Pinot Noir, it is a variety that has a late bud break and a shorter growing season requirement than Pinot Noir. The variety is more winter-hardy relative to Pinot Noir. With Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier is one of the traditional champagne varieties. Plantings in New Mexico of this variety are very promising, with little plant loss during the winter.

Riesling (white): This noble white grape variety originated in the Rhine region of Germany, and is claimed to have originated from wild vines of the Rhine region. More recently, DNA fingerprinting by Ferdinand Regner indicated that one parent of Riesling is Gouais Blanc, which was brought to Burgundy from Croatia by the Romans. The other parent is a cross between a wild vine and Traminer. Riesling is being successfully grown in locations north of Santa Fe and near Grants, NM. It is relatively cold-hardy. Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines. Riesling wines are usually varietally pure and are seldom oaked.


Happy Tasting!

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