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High Elevation Wine Growing

excerpt from Winepros, 2001 1214262000

High Elevation Wine Growing Winepros, 2001

Grapes grown in marginal conditions are generally thought to make the most distinct wines. At least they do during favorable vintages. "Vines must suffer," is how the old saw goes, "in order to produce great art." Europe has extreme latitude, with vines in Champagne and Germany pushing up against 50°N. North America also has vineyards that far north in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. But Americans have noted as well a relationship between climatic conditions at high latitudes and those at high elevations. It seems 500 ft of elevation has much the same effect as one degree of latitude.

Santa Fe, New Mexico is just south of the 36th parallel. Grand Junction, Colorado is barely north of the 39th. Yet both cities have a considerable number of neighboring vineyards perched above 5,500 ft of elevation. These grapes experience mesoclimates similar to the most extreme in Europe. Terror Creek Vyd & Winery in Colorado is the highest commercial wine operation (6,500 ft) in the northern hemisphere now that a few in Mexico's Highlands have turned exclusively to brandy. Only South America has winery/vineyard ventures of any significance at higher elevations than Terror Creek, and those are around Salta in Argentina at the 25th parallel.

Temperature is the most notable feature of high elevation grape growing. Colorado and New Mexico are both in the Rocky Mountains, so even 6,000 ft vineyards look up to surrounding 12-14,000 ft peaks. These vineyards need to be concerned with the winter hardiness of their vines. They can count on periods of very cold temperature. In 1989 Grand Valley, CO had some -22°F overnights which killed vines right back to ground level. CO and NM vineyards get snow every year, and it provides some protection since the temperature of the snow is typically in the 20s (°F), i.e. 45°F warmer than the air during the overnights just cited. But neither CO nor NM vineyards get a large enough volume of snow to cover vines completely. That beneficial insulating effect of heavy snowfall in places such as Grand Traverse (as much as 200 inches some years) helps define where vinifera vines will grow in Michigan. Everybody else needs to content themselves with French-American hybrids, in which genes from the American species parent provide viability through winter temperatures significantly below zero degrees F. Vineyards in CO and NM typically receive less than 20 inches a year of total precipitation including snowfall.

New Mexico is the oldest vinifera growing region in the U.S. Not long after the colonization of Mexico in the first half of the 16th century, the Spanish Crown forbade planting vines in the New World. They wanted a rising oligarchy in Mexico to buy wine from Spain. But missionaries in far-flung locations needed wine for the Eucharist and for other sacraments essential to the "saving" of native souls. The further away one got from Mexico City, seat of Spanish authority, the more likely one was to find vines being cultivated as part of the mission economy. Vinifera vines came to the Mesilla Valley in (what is now) southern New Mexico around 1580. That would be a quarter century before the English tried, and failed, to grow vinifera vines at Jamestown on America's Atlantic coast.

By the 1880's, when phylloxera was devastating Europe, the New Mexico territory (it did not become a state until 1912) had grown to be America's fifth largest wine maker with more than 3,000 acres producing over 900,000 gallons. That figure was double New York's production at the time. Early wine industries in Colorado and New Mexico, however, were no competitive match for the production engine of California's Central Valley nor for the revitalized wine producers of Europe after the turn of the last century. Then, as in so many places around America, the remnant cores of the CO and NM industries were snuffed out by Prohibition. Neither flickered fully back to life -- Phoenix-like -- until well into the 1970's.

Both CO and NM have extraordinary tourism industries. Skiing at places such as Aspen, Vail, and Taos draws jet-setters the world over. Separately, the art community around historic Santa Fe, NM takes a back seat to no American city other than Manhattan. With international attractions of this magnitude bringing well heeled, highly cultured visitors to CO and NM on a regular basis, it stands to reason that fine wine and good food would be topics frequently discussed. And they are. The question remains though, "Will local wines ever be able to intrude on this upscale marketplace?"

As yet the answer is unclear. New Mexico has one winery making giant strides, a couple others apparently ready to break out and score significant recognition, then a pack of hobbyists who seem eternally destined to sell all their production to friends. The big dog is Gruet, a sparkling wine producer whose owners have controlled the eponymous winery in Champagne since 1952. At more than 50,000 nationally distributed cases, Gruet is not just New Mexico's most successful winery, it is one of the top five sparkling wine producers in the U.S. -- bigger than any of the well known French houses operating in California other than Moet-Hennessey (Dom. Chandon). Gruet sells 80% of their production outside NM, and if you do encounter a NM wine on the list at a top Santa Fe restaurant, it is almost certain to be Gruet. Their sparklers are more full-bodied than most French competitors, but they are clean on the palate and notably long in the finish. They also sell for around $15.

That Gruet would be artistically and financially successful, and the fact that they are just about the only winery in New Mexico to employ a technically trained professional as winemaker, is no coincidence. The area between Albuquerque and Santa Fe is alive with retired scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the place where the U.S. developed the first atom bomb. It would be the height of absurdity to claim these individuals do not have the technical expertise to make great wine. And several of them are in the game. But they are amateurs in the sense that they are not dependent on winemaking for their livelihood. Witty, thoroughly charming, an absolute delight to visit, nevertheless they do not represent the artistic future for New Mexico wine. They grow grapes where they live. They do not move in order to live on the best site possible in New Mexico for growing grapes.

Most of the vines in New Mexico are grown in the sandy soils of the south along the Rio Grande at about 4,000 ft elevation. Those wines tend to be softly structured and lacking in focus, although their ripe fruit characteristics can be attractive. More interesting grapes are grown further north at higher elevations on denser soils. A very promising winery called Casa Rondena is located in Albuquerque proper. It is run by John Calvin, a classical guitarist who spent several years in the Andalusian region of Spain before returning home to become a prominent designer of Moorish-style houses. John makes an excellent Riesling and a wonderfully fragrant Cabernet Franc.

In Colorado the Queen of the Hill is Joan Mathewson, who has an Enology degree from Changins, Switzerland. With her husband John, she farms 10 acres of Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir on Garvin Mesa in the North Fork region of the western slope. Their Terror Creek Winery produces less than 2,000 cases a year, but it is very good quality. The Riesling is world-class and a clear harbinger of what high elevation viticulture can eventually accomplish in America. It should be unthinkable for skiers who risk their necks plummeting down Rocky Mountain runs to leave the region without experiencing this unique local wine.

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