Gruet has the best reputation of any winery east of the coastal states, so it was a natural place for me to visit on the journey. They were founded in the early 1980’s by a family from Champagne looking to create a sparkling wine in the New World. They explored the classic regions like Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, but they saw potential in the high elevations of southern New Mexico. The winery is located in Albuquerque, which is in the north-central part of the state, so the grapes are transported. Over ninety percent of their production is dedicated to sparkling wine, which is available in 49 states (North Dakota being the lone exception). The primary product is the Brut, and other sparklers include a rosé, a demi-sec, and various reserve bottlings from single vintages. Only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used in the sparkling wines, and they make two still versions of each.
The tasting began with the still wines. Both Chardonnays spend time in oak, but only the Barrel Select goes through malolactic fermentation. The standard Chardonnay had pronounced acidity which gave my palate a much needed wake up call for the 10:30 AM tasting. The Barrel Select was more complex and rounder in the mouth, which means that it didn’t stand out in any one place. Conversely the Chardonnay lit up the back of my mouth with its higher acid levels. The costs are $13.50 and $22 respectively; both wines are worth more than the price.
Malolactic fermentation is one of the winemaking mysteries that I hope to wrap my mind around by the conclusion of this adventure. It is a process that uses bacteria to convert malic acid, which is a piquant, sometimes harsh acid into lactic acid, or milk acid, which is much softer. The winemaker is able to control the degree to which this process occurs, but I am unsure how they are able to do so. I have been told that every red wine undergoes malo, and a handful of whites, mainly Chardonnays, do as well. The buttery charachteristics of Chardonnay are said to be the result of this process, but I have never smelled buttered popcorn in a red wine.
The Pinot Noir selections at Gruet are curious because they are the first red wines I’ve come across that claim to forego malolactic fermentation. Pinots generally have a higher acid level than other reds, so they would be a good candidate for this experiment. Like the Chardonnays, the Pinots were divided into a regular bottling and a Barrel Select. Both had a captivating nose, the Barrel Select a bit more so, but both seemed thin on the palate. Perhaps if I did not know of the lack of malo I would have been more receptive to them, but as it stood I saw a great deal of potential if the wine were made conventionally.
The last red was a Syrah, which is gaining acrage in New Mexico. The 2006 vintage I tasted was from young vines so it lacked some the power of a typical Syrah, but that will change as the vines mature. The climate seems natural for Syrah, so these may be the first great reds east of the Sierra Nevada.
The sparkling wines began with the Brut, then the Blanc de Blancs and the Blanc de Noirs, and finished with the Grand Rosé, the Gilbert Gruet Grande Reserve and the Demi-Sec. The Brut was good as ever and is a steal at $14 per bottle. It’s a great house sparkler. I recall it being more expensive in St. Louis, but I’m not positive.
The standouts were the Grand Rosé and the Gilbert Gruet. The rosé was super-complex and delicate. The Gilbert Gruet was a powerful sparkler modeled after the style of Krug and Bollinger with fermentation in oak barrels. At $32 and $46 respectively, they provide every penny’s worth of wine.