Written by Isabel A. Rodriguez
It’s no accident that winemaking has flourished for centuries in New Mexico. With low precipitation, high levels of sunshine, and dry conditions, our state’s climate makes it an almost-perfect locale for starting a vineyard.
Just ask Gordon Steel, owner of Rio Grande Winery. His grandparents owned vineyards in the 1800s (just a few miles from where his own 10-acre vineyard is now located off of scenic Highway 28), and he’s been making wine since he was about 13 years old—before he was even old enough to drink.
Gordon cemented his own winemaking venture studying vineyard management and winemaking at both the University of California, Davis and Washington State University. Throughout his 34-year career in the Air Force, he visited numerous wineries across Europe.
“Hot days, cool nights, lots of sunshine, low to no humidity,” Gordon says, describing the ideal conditions for growing grapes that will eventually be fermented into wine. “It makes it easier to make wine. You don’t have to worry about bugs, mold (from the yeast), or powdery or downy mildew.”
The bugs and mold, he explains, are often a result of humidity—something we rarely have to worry about here. “Back east and up north, they have all kinds of issues like that,” Gordon says. “Out here, we don’t have any problems with phylloxera. That’s a little bug that eats the roots, and destroyed the French (wine) industry in the mid-1800s.”
Bernd Maier, former director of the New Mexico State University Viticulture Program, agrees that multiple factors can influence the terroir, including techniques. “The days here may be warmer than we would like, but we always cool down at night,” he explains, adding that graftings should be planted in the spring. The first harvest could take between three to four years and a region’s elevation affects temperatures, and as a result, how long the grapes take to ripen.
Water also plays a major role in the grape-growing process, and we all know that can be hard to come by in the desert. Fortunately for winemakers, drip irrigation, a popular watering system that targets the roots of plants, is favorable to grapevines. “We use a fraction of water on most crops, because of drip irrigation,” Gordon explains. “Grapevines look green and they take a lot of water, but since you can direct that water with drip irrigation, it’s not nearly as much as you would need for something like pecan trees or alfalfa.”
According to Gordon, the three major classes of grapes grown in New Mexico are vitis vinifera (European varietal), vitis labrusca (the native kind exported to Europe in the 1800s) and a hybrid of the two. “What the hybrids produce has a very unique, foxy-like character to them, and they’re grown more in places that are harder to grow grapes, such as East Texas, Colorado, and all over the rest of the country, whereas wine grapes are grown in West Texas, Southern New Mexico, Southern Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan and some eastern places. You go outside of those regions and it’s very hard to grow the types of grapes we’re talking about,” he explains. “Southern New Mexico is the oldest region in the United States to grow grapes for winemaking; since the 1500s, 150 years before California.”
Gordon has observed that people in our region tend to favor sweeter wines over the dry variety. “We have both, but my Cabernet Sauvignon has the most medals. We sell an awful lot of Vino Blanco Dulce and our Sangria. I sell about 60 to 70 percent sweet wines and about 30 to 40 percent dry wines.
Sweet or dry, the land and climate in the Mesilla Valley produce some pretty respectable varietals, but as Gordon says, “the best wine ever made is the one you like the most.”