In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate led Spanish settlers to the Rio Grande’s upper valleys. With colonists came Franciscan monks and with the monks came the need for sacramental wine. Brushing off Spanish laws that forbade exporting grapevines, Franciscan monks smuggled vines to New Mexico in 1629 and planted them just south of the modern-day town of Socorro.
Despite a couple tumultuous centuries, the vines took root. When Jesuit priests settled in the state, they imported their Italian winemaking techniques, too. Although Prohibition dampened production and floods wiped out many of the original vineyards, winemaking continued.
By the late 1970s, commercial wineries (such as La Viña Winery in La Union, now the longest continuously operating winery in the state, and La Chiripada Winery in Dixon) opened once again — thus cementing the state’s legacy as the original wine-growing region in the country.
Not only is New Mexico the oldest wine growing region in the United States, it’s somewhat off the beaten path for savvy wine lovers. Here are a few more reasons why you should head to the Land of Enchantment for your next wine country tour.
There is French influence in New Mexico’s wine.
Hervé Lescombes, who ran Domaine de Perignon winery in Burgundy, France, traveled to New Mexico to explore a landscape that promised to be similar to his native Algeria. He found fitting grounds and planted his first vines in 1981. He bottled his first vintage in 1984, and since then, his sons have taken over St. Clair Winery, which has become the second largest winery in the state with four locations and more than 180 family-owned vineyard acres.
It has award-winning bubbly.
In 1983, the Gruet family — whose patriarch Gilbert produced fine Champagne in Bethon, France — was traveling in the Southwest and decided to start production in New Mexico. The entire family — including son Laurent and daughter Nathalie, who now oversee the company — relocated to the U.S. and planted chardonnay and pinot noir grapes near Engle, outside Truth or Consequences.
They bottle still wine, but Gruet Winery receives the most accolades for its méthode champenoise sparkling wines. In 2011, Wine Spectator named Gruet NV Blanc de Noirs one of the top 100 wines in the world.
It has one of the U.S.’s only Native American-owned vineyards.
Owned by Santa Ana Pueblo, Tamaya Vineyard is one of the only Native American-owned vineyards in the U.S. On top of that, the pueblo built its 30 acres of vines from scratch rather than purchasing an existing vineyard. Tamaya partnered with Gruet Winery from the start, creating a unique pueblo-private partnership. They produced a still rosé from the first harvest in 2016, though other varieties will follow.
Grapes grow across the entire state.
No matter where you travel in New Mexico, there are vineyards nearby. You’ll find tasting rooms in the state’s largest towns and tourist draws in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, and Las Cruces.
You’ll also find Balzano Vineyard in Carlsbad (near one of the state’s top attractions, Carlsbad Caverns National Park), Pecos Flavors Winery in Roswell (legendary for the supposed 1947 UFO crash here), and Wines of the San Juan in Blanco, just outside of Farmington, to name a few.
Its tasting rooms have small-town charm.
Often, wineries and tasting rooms are set in charming settings that treat visitors to slices of New Mexican culture alongside tastings.
One example of this is Casa Rondeña, with its Tuscan-style winery building in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. Milagro Vineyards in Corrales, on the other hand, captures the essence of that pastoral oasis on Albuquerque’s city limits. Hillsboro, a small artist enclave between Silver City and Truth or Consequences, boasts Black Range Vineyards.
Its wines stand up to its distinctive regional cuisine.
Many travelers come for New Mexico’s culture and outdoors, but they come back for the food. Chile-laden cuisine (the official state question "red or green?" hints at its prevalence) simmers in every corner of the state.
With that in mind, many wineries create varieties that lean sweet and fruity to stand up to that spicy cuisine. It’s a pairing travelers would be hard-pressed to experience anywhere else. Much of the state’s wine and the chile come from southern New Mexico — where tasting rooms for St. Clair and Luna Rossa Winery produce fine wines hitting a variety of notes on the flavor spectrum.
New Mexico has great grapes, but its wineries also partner with other facets of the libation industry, including craft breweries and distilleries.
For example, Don Quixote Distillery and Winery started with craft spirits — like bourbon, rye whiskey, gin, vodka, and brandy — but has expanded to make port-style wines, including one based on a 400-year-old recipe to create the sweet wine used in Spanish Colonial New Mexico.
There are also plenty of festivals celebrating wine throughout the year. Learn more about the events and plan your trip here.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for RootsRated in partnership with New Mexico.