Spanish heritage is woven deeply into the history of New Mexico. Throughout its cuisine, architecture, music, and more, the arrival of Spanish missionaries to the southwest region more than 400 years ago embedded an indelible mark on the state's identity. It's worth noting that it was the Spanish who first planted Vitis vinifera in New Mexico in the 1620s, more than 100 years before California. And now, that heritage is showing up in New Mexico wine and spirits.
Last summer, I received a sample of a new gin from New Mexico. Simply named Vara, the gin had a bright, clean palate with high-toned citrus notes, subtle florals, and herbs. Curious to learn more about the producer, I pulled up the website and clicked around to find the distillery was founded on a desire to celebrate Spanish contribution to wine and spirits in the history of New Mexico. The team included still winemakers Bob Lindquist and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, head distiller Scott Feuille, and assistant winemaker and distiller Djuna Benjamin. And beyond gin, it was producing brandy (in the same method commonly seen in Jerez, Spain), vermut, and a portfolio of still wines from Spanish varietals.
But as I read deeper through the wine portion of the site, I discovered that Vara's veritable ace-in-the-hole was also on the company's winemaking team. Someone who represents winemaking's past, present, and future in New Mexico. Laurent Gruet. And for the past few years, he's been making sparkling wines with Cava varieties—Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Parellada—imported from Spain.
If the name Gruet doesn't sound familiar, it should. It's one of the most recognized sparkling wine brands made in America. Laurent Gruet is the son of Gilbert Gruet, both natives of Champagne, France. Gilbert spent his early career making sparkling wine in his home region. Laurent was raised in the vineyards and made his first wine with his father when he was 16. But in 1981, Gilbert took a leap of faith on American soil, purchasing more than 250 acres of land in Elephant Butte in the southwest part of the state. He started by planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, and Laurent soon joined to help launch the project.
Launching the brand under the family name, Gruet, the father-son team would become one of the premier méthode Champenoise
producers in the United States by the late 1980s. Throughout the 1990s, production grew from 10,000 to 100,000 cases. In 2014, the Gruet family sold to Precept Brands. Laurent initially continued winemaking operations, but in 2020, he joined Vara to try his hand at marrying American grapes with Spanish grapes for one-of-a-kind sparkling wines.
Laurent's first release with Vara is an American sparkling wine using grapes from Washington state. And the recent release, Vara Silverhead Brut NV, is a blend of 75% Chardonnay and Syrah from the Ancient Lakes AVA of Washington and 25% Xarel-lo and Macabeo from the Penedès DO of Spain. While he also sources grapes from Lodi, Monterrey, and San Luis Obispo, Gruet plans to grow the sparkling program further with more fruit from New Mexico.
He has helped Vara forge relationships with local growers to create the base for their gin, brandy, and more using New Mexico grapes.
And recently, he and the winemaking team have also developed a special fortified wine, Viña Cardinal. When the Spanish brought cuttings from Spain in the early 17th century, the variety planted was Listán Prieto—known more commonly as the Mission grape—a variety still harvested in New Mexico today. The Viña Cardinal is made from New Mexico-grown heirloom Listán Prieto grapes. With a pleasant berry hue, this aperitif is off-dry with notes of rose, summer berries, stone fruit, and melon.
While I'm still waiting to taste the Vara Silverhead Brut, I've no doubt of its potential. Given the prominence of Gruet's sparkling wine legacy, it's bound to be good. But more inspiring is seeing this new chapter for the celebrated winemaker, one that celebrates Spanish heritage in the New World.