French Champagne . . .
story & photographs by Paul Ross
By law, Champagne (the alcoholic beverage) must come from eponymous Champagne (the region), France.
But what do you call sparkling white wine if it’s made the traditional way by a French family in New Mexico? – You call it delicious.
The Gruet (prounounced groo-ay) family (pere et fils) began making fine wine in the old country, moved to California in ’81 and then to the oldest wine-growing area in the U.S., New Mexico, three years later.
Today, a handsome stone building that flanks I-25 in Albuquerque ishome to the deceptively small, award-winning winery with a worldwide following. The Food Network, Sunset, Gourmet and New York magazines all expressed surprise and delight that great wines were coming from an unexpected place. And bay area bastion, “The San Francisco Chronicle,” wrote that Gruet’s wines were “on a par with California’s best.”
Although a tiny working vineyard grows right outside the tasting room, Gruet’s grape fields lie 170 miles south, outside the town of Truth Or Consequences, at an altitude which places them among the highest in America.
You can learn all this and more during a daily tour at 2 but the proof -pun intended- is in the tasting.
There are 5 Summer Wine Festivals in New Mexico from Memorial to Labor Day.
Gruet makes only four types of wine (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé and “bubblies,” all reasonably-priced in the teens– $12-20), but is probably best-known for its spark-ling varieties, which are sold in sizes that range from half-bottles to Magnums. (A Magnum is the equivalent of 2 standard bottles. Rarely-seen today, sizes used to include the Nebuchadnezzar which equalled a whopping 20 bottles.) One of the things the Gruet winery prides itself on is that its half-sizes are fermented in the bottle and not decanted from a larger batch and re-containered, as is a customary practice in the business. The Gruet folks -and wine connoisseurs agree– that the latter machination results in a loss of quality. Is their belief apocryphal or actual?-A taste will tell.
Once properly resealed, sparkling wines can be kept in the refrigerator for several days and, some say, a silver spoon handle dangled into the neck will maintain the bubbles in an open bottle for several hours.
Gruet uses the “methode Champenoise” (or, as family members prefer to call it, “traditionelle” -to distinguish what they do from industrialized batch-processing shortcuts prevalent in modern major wine-making). Grapes are harvested by hand in 100 pound boxes to prevent crush damage because, once the skin is broken, by accident or design, aspects of fermentation begin. The grapes are then transported in refrigerated trucks up from vineyard to winery. They’re pressed on the same day. A ton of grapes yields only 120 gallons of juice and the pressing is crucial.
For the Gruet winery, the desired extraction of juice without breaking the fruit’s skin requires a slow four to six hour crush. The wine ferments for weeks in stainless steel tanks, then sits for a few more months. At the discretion of the wine-maker (whose personal taste and blending skill also determine the house style), the wine is bottled with yeast and sugar to feed the yeast that creates the bubbles and some of the flavor. This natural chemistry takes years, and then a portion of the yeast is removed and the bottles are recapped. But the “champagnization” of the wine continues and finally the rest of the yeast is removed, the bottles are “topped-off” with more sparkling wine and the familiar champagne cork, hardware and foil added. This is all fine and good, but how does it taste?
It’s not only gauche to explode off the cork, it’s also wrong, harmful to the wine, a waste of the beverage and dangerous to fellow imbibers as there are 70-90 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure behind each cork.
“Tradition says the sound of sparkling wine being opened should have the decorum and subtlety of a monk passing wind,” laughs Jeffrey Devore, Director of Sales for the Gruet winery as he uncorks a bottle for sampling in the spacious tasting room. He pours a generous portion into Riedel crystal. “The correct glasses make a difference,” he continues. “The shape can enhance the aroma and flavor. And the surface of crystal forms more bubbles.”
A bottle of sparkling wine has up to 50,000,000 bubbles and the tinier they are, the better the wine. In fact, the French call big bubbles “the eyes of the toad.”
More wine lore and education are dispensed along with tastings of Gruet’s best:
The winery has grown so rapidly in recent years that much of a large, rentable event room has been sacrificed for more storage and private parties are now limited to fifty people. That space is frequently used for the winery’s unique training program which is affectionately referred to as “Gruet U.” The staff of New Mexico restaurants like Assets Grill, Santacafé, Quail Run and from as far away as Texas and even the east coast, has come in for a quick course in wine …with tastings, of course
Although the winery’s growing needs mean that new underground structures will soon be built, there are no plans to streamline the process, sacrifice quality or raise prices. Gruet began as a family business with a commitment to the highest wine-making ideals and remains so today. An example of this philosophy is given by Devore, “It costs us $900 per oak barrel and we use it only twice in the fermentation process.” You can taste the difference. The famed sparkling wines are crisp and complex, the chardonnays balanced and fruity. But the real revelation was the Pinot Noir: rich, ruby-colored and cascading with flavors from pepper to indefinable.
PLEASE NOTE: Photos are available for all locations and articles listed in the “articles” section. Please contact us for samples and pricing