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Missives from New Mexico: The Expression of a Terroir on the Banks of the Rio Grande

September 1st, 2023

The development of the New Mexican wine industry

If the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the land of Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century, then they quickly crossed the current geographical line between Mexico and the United States in 1565 to colonize the lands of Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico). This region, thanks to the Rio Grande, has much more fertile land than that of Mexico, as well as a more temperate climate called "High Desert". These two factors quickly influenced the establishment of colonies and Missions in the region, and in 1629 the first vines were planted on the banks of the Rio Grande in the region of Taos (NM) by missionaries. We know today that these small vineyards are the first vines of Vitis Vinifera (Asia vines) that will proliferate successfully on the lands of future America (USA). This fascinating variety, which is, and will forever remain, the emblem of the first American vine, and the “Misson” (AKA Palomino) will proliferate all along the American West Coast. 

Most of us associate the desert climate of Mexico with that of New Mexico and Texas, but this misleads us when it comes to the prosperity and abundance of existing vines in New Mexico. Despite having the first vineyards planted in the 17th century, it was only after prohibition and the large arrival of European immigrants to the region that there developed the diversity of grape varieties known today on the three main valleys (AVAs.) The first official vineyard was established in 1971 (La Viña Winery) in the Mesilla Valley. This valley is north of Sante Fe in the Rio Embudo region near Santonio de Embudo, which today is known as the town of Dixon.  Soon after, a second winery, La Chiripada Winery, appeared, and then after 1980 many others were established and prospered, such as Gruet Winery (which we carry at the shop). 

The elusive New Mexican terroir

In general, all the wines produced in the Dixon region (between Santa Fe and Taos) are blended wines from various regions. These wines could be blended across the three New Mexican AVAs of Middle Rio Grande River, Mimbres Valley, and Mesilla Valley, but could also be blended with grapes as far away as Texas and California. So unfortunately, they can’t be representative of the character of their terroir of origin. Luckily, there are exceptions, and some wines and winemakers, such as La Chiripad, Vivác, and Embudo Valley Winery, offer a selection of grape varieties that are representative of a particular region and soil of their region. 

Unexpected varietals

The climate of the Dixon region is particular. The summers are dry and arid, but because it’s located at a high altitude (6000ft), the winters are cold with sometimes very abundant snowfall. You can find some Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sangiovese, but it’s also normal to find hybrid grape varieties created for cold climates, such as Baco Noir, Leon Millot, Marquet, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, de Chaumac etc. Who would have thought that New Mexico grew grape varieties identical the ones we grow here in New England? 

Josh Johnson, New Mexican Winemaker

I would like to take a few lines to highlight the exceptional work of a very special winemaker, Josh Johnson. Born in Dixon, he grew up and worked with his parents at an early age in the family vineyard. After years of collaboration with local vineyards and getaways in New Zealand, he decided to create his own winery in collaboration with Embudo Valley Organic farm called Embudo Valley Vineyards. The vineyard is located in Embudo Valley, nestled between the Rio Grande and the southern lava flow of a 3-million-year-old volcanic field. These fertile vineyards of sandy, loamy soil are warmed by the surrounding basalt boulders, creating an ideal and idyllic place for terroir-driven wines. The result of wines of great finesse, with a beautiful acidity and the expression of a particular soil. Well done, Josh!

Note: The painting of the Embudo Valley above was done by Krysteen Waszak