Take the road east from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and you'll pass Elephant Butte Reservoir and the pachyderm-shaped butte itself. Cross the Rio Grande and you reach the tiny town of Engle. All around is rangeland: high, wide, dry. It is impossible to conceive of a locale more distant in mood from sparkling wine made by méthode champenoise. But there they are, amid the yucca: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, ready to become blanc de blancs or demi-sec.
"We thought if we could make great wine in New Mexico, that would be an unusual niche," says Laurent Gruet, cofounder of Gruet Winery. As we toast the new year, Laurent hopes we'll do it with his wine.
The United States has become a wine-loving land, imbibing a record 270 million cases in 2004. Most comes from the West, where sophisticated viticulture has spread from historic centers like the Napa Valley to newer spots like Walla Walla, Washington. Still, the idea of New Mexico wine inspires jokes. Is it cactus-flavored? Does it go well with scorpion? Are we talking Château Albuquerque or Côtes du Rio Grande?
No, no, no, and no. Laurent's wines have earned awards in this country and in Europe, and have garnered praise from publications such as Wine Spectator.
Laurent first saw New Mexico in the early 1980s. His father, Gilbert, started his own Champagne house near Épernay in the 1950s and wanted to expand to the New World. The family toured California, where land was expensive, and Texas, where the climate was wrong. Learning that wine had been produced in New Mexico for two centuries, they visited.
"To grow grapes you need warm days, cold nights, and water," Laurent says when I visit his winery in Albuquerque, two hours north of the vineyards. The Engle acreage has that. Its aridity (the water comes via irrigation) and 4,300-foot elevation protect against pests and disease. Sandy soil helps too. "The poorer soil, the better," Laurent says. "The vine has to plant its roots deep. You get more terroir."
So Laurent, his sister Nathalie, and associate Farid Himeur ― all then in their 20s ― began making wine. It wasn't easy. When they did release their first efforts, the reception wasn't hostile, just disbelieving. Says Laurent, "We learned not to say where the wine was from before people tasted it."
But the world came around. It helped that Laurent got support from Santa Fe restaurateurs. Santa Fe draws travelers from all over. Many of them talked up the New Mexico sparkling wine they tried on vacation.
Today Laurent sells 75,000 cases annually. Along with a half-dozen sparkling wines, the winery sells a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. Next month they plan to release a Syrah.
And Laurent has become a New Mexican. He retains an accent and looks like he should be playing for France in the World Cup, but he's married to a New Mexican. His daughter and son are, he says, mixes of American Southwest and France ― blends, like some good wines.
Laurent has toured me through the winery. Now it's time to sample. He's been informative throughout the tour, but only now does he light up. We try a 2000 blanc de blancs, then move on to a 1997 Grande Reserve. Aged for six years, it's Laurent's favorite, with a label patterned after that of his father's first release.
As Laurent pours, he talks about his father, who died six years ago. "He was the one who came here, but I was the one who stayed. He started from nothing in France. I wanted to do the same here."
We lift our glasses. A sparkling wine is the most frivolous of beverages, and like all things frivolous must be done perfectly or not at all. "This is the best in New Mexico," Laurent says, as he sips his Grande Reserve. "The best we can do. This is as good as it gets."
INFO: Gruet Winery (12-5 Mon-Sat; $5 tasting fee; 8400 Pan American Fwy. N.E., Albuquerque; 888/857-9463)