Summer means many things to different people. From backyard barbecues and Fourth of July fireworks to beach lounging and reading by the pool. But for me, summer also inevitably means one thing: Road trip. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a great fan of packing up the car with necessities and sundries and hitting the open road for a week or more. This summer was no different. Just a couple of weeks ago, with my family in tow, we made our annual pilgrimage to Colorado for a family ranch vacation. But this time, instead of taking the most direct path, we opted for a little excursion through some of the Southwest’s wine regions.
Few people may be aware of the burgeoning wine industries making their way in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, but there’s actually quite a bit to discover in this part of the country. In fact, you could argue this very place is the bedrock for American wine history. After all, grape vine plantings were recorded in New Mexico as early as 1629, making it the first place in the country to have vitis vinifera. (Texas wasn’t far behind, with plantings dating back to the 1650s. California plantings didn’t come along until 1680, but who’s counting?) Of course, all of these plantings wee for the purpose of sacramental wine for the Spanish Franciscan monks who had set up missions throughout the region.
Most of today’s modern wine industry throughout the Southwest began in the early 1970s and on into the 80s. And in the past few decades, each of these states have made strides with grape growing for what best suits the dry, hot, unruly climate, and winemaking. Texas leads the pack in size and production with more than 5,000 vineyard acres planted and more than 300 wineries. Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico each claim nearly 1,000 acres of vineyard plantings, with Colorado leading with about 140 producers, followed by Arizona with close to 100, and New Mexico with about 40.
When it comes to overall focus on quality and consistency, each of these Southwest regions have a solid range of wines to discover. On our way out of Texas, via the far western border city of El Paso, we drove up through Anthony and on to Las Cruces where you’ll find handful of tasting rooms smattered around, including La Viña, Amaro Winery, D.H. Lescombes, and Luna Rossa. Much of the fruit for these tasting rooms is grown about 60 miles west, near Deming. We made our way up to Albuquerque where well-known sparkling producer, Gruet has its main production facility. It’s also home to a 30-plus acre vineyard grown for Gruet by one of the Native American Reservations, the Santa Ana Puebla, the first tribal winery project of its kind. Further north, in Santa Fe, we stopped in at Gruet’s sister tasting rooms well as a few others including Noisy Water and Vivac before heading to Colorado.
While you won’t find many mountain wineries scattered around Colorado ski towns, you can find a collection of them in the Denver and Boulder areas. After all, the front range of the Rocky Mountains draws a lot more foot traffic than the far western reaches of the state where the grapes are grown. We opted for those western reaches otherwise known as the Grand Valley AVA which spans the geography around Grand Junction and Palisade at elevations between 6,000 and 7,000 feet. (Despite high elevation, the terrain and climate are more like the desert of Utah and Arizona.) The area is primarily known for its fruit orchards of cherries, apples, and peaches. But it’s also home to most of Colorado’s vineyards planted primarily to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties along with Riesling.
Further south, following a scenic drive through the Grand Mesa National Forest, we found the West Elks AVA, which includes the quaint little hamlets of Hotchkiss and Paonia. The more mountainous environs here offer a cooler climate compared to the Grand Valley allowing for cool climate grapes such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling.
Our final Colorado stop was in the far southwestern region of the state near the Four Corners. Though more of an outlier growing region located at about 5,300 feet in the heart of the desert, this area is home to some impressive wines from Sutcliffe Vineyards. (Cinsault, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc among the most intriguing.)
This veritable whirlwind wine tour concluded with a visit to the Texas high Plains near Lubbock, where more than two-thirds of the state’s grapes are grown among the tumbleweeds, oil derricks, and cotton fields followed by a scenic drive through the Hill Country, consequently, where most of Texas’ wineries and tasting rooms exist due to heavy tourist traffic.
Despite the many miles clicked on my odometer, I really only barely scratched the surface of the wines of the Southwest. (And let’s not forget that I didn’t even get to Arizona -- a failing I hope to remedy this fall.) But the experience illustrates the very true realization of what happens when you just dip your toes into a new wine region. You can’t help but want to go a little deeper.
Below are a few highlights from the trip:
Vivac Winery 2018 Rosé of Sangiovese, $16: The creation of brothers Jesse and Chris Padberg from Dixon, New Mexico, Vivac offers a range of elegant, well-balanced wines from Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, to Aglianico and Rhône blends. This rosé offers rich red cherry characters framed by fragrant summer flowers. The palate is beautifully balanced with a berry-licious mid-palate that ends with a refreshingly tart finish. 93
Luna Rossa 2013 Aglianico Reserve, $50: One of the state’s largest grape growers (managing more than 300 acres), Luna Rossa is also one of New Mexico’s foremost wine producers. Showing particular expertise with Italian grape varieties Luna Rossa’s Reserve Aglianico is a particular stunner. Brick red in color, with orange-tinted edges, this wine shows a well-developed age with notes of dried black cherry, fig, leather and mushroom wrapped in firm, yet giving tannin. 95
Noisy Water 2016 Winemaker’s Select Syrah, $44: Beautifully concentrate color with hints of blue lead to luscious palate with black and blue berries commingling with violet and characteristic black pepper. This wine has a lovely, complexity of structure with a soft tannin finish. 95
Sutcliffe Vineyards 2017 Cinsault, $32: From the arid, poor soils of the Four Corners region, this Rhône variety shines. Notes of ripe cherry and savory herbs lead the senses followed by mushroom and light, fresh, yet earthy structure on the palate. 92
Azura Cellars 2016 Pinot Noir, $50: Ripe, radiantly red notes of cherry and pomegranate, this wine is fruity and finessed with red floral notes and a light structure that begs for a summer patio with a mountain view--a feature this Paonia-based winery has in spades from its hillside deck. 92
Buckel Family Wine 2016 Chardonnay, $28: Luscious and rich, this wine grown in the Grand Valley region offers characteristic notes of yellow apple, ripe peach, and lemon curd led by a distinct oaked-kissed toastiness. The wine’s medium weight on the palate offers a surprisingly light and zippy finish. 93
Lost Draw Cellars 2017 Roussanne Reserve, $24: A rising star grape variety for Texas, this white Rhône grape has found a happy home in the Texas High Plains. Elegant and lemony, with delicate floral notes, this wine has a nice medium weight that finishes with bright finesse. 94
Ron Yates 2016 Trans Pecos GSM, $36: Another example of how Rhône varieties excel in the warm Texas climate, this wine is a well-executed blend offering notes of smoky charcuterie, dried cherry, and fig along with dried savory herbs. With medium weight and a juicy mid-palate, this wine is a perfect barbecue pairing. 93
Bending Branch Winery 2018 Tannat Rosé, $24: This big, robust grape does very well in the Texas High Plains. Though often leathery and tannic, this softer side of Tannat makes for a perfect meaty summer pairing. Notes of ripe raspberry, strawberry, and pomegranate linger on an opulent palate with a uniquely grippy structure. 94