Elevated España: The Spanish and American Wine Connection in New Mexico

As the most widely planted wine producing nation with about 3 million acres under vine, Spain dukes it out with France and Italy as a powerhouse producer of wine. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is climactically diverse—cool and damp to hot and dry and has a 3000- year-old history of producing wine. With over 400 hundred varieties of grapes grown within its borders, 80% of the country’s wine production is from only 20 grapes. Spanish missionaries transported these winemaking traditions to the New World, albeit for limited sacramental purposes. And while we tend to associate California with the genesis of wine in North America, New Mexico’s wine history is even older. Let’s explore Spain’s wine making diversity and how these traditions have re-emerged in New Mexico.

Rioja and Reds Reign in Spain

Spain’s ancient history of winemaking began when Phoenicians planted vineyards around 1100 B.C., but it was the investment from French wine proprietors in the 1850’s that established La Rioja in northern Spain as the country’s first traditional area of quality. The phylloxera epidemic had all but decimated France’s vineyards, and the nearby Ebro River Valley–just south of the Cantabrian mountains– provided the fruit and the market to revive the dwindling French wine industry. As a result, red wines from Rioja’s native grapes have become the most famous of Spain’s wines. Rioja wines have four quality classifications based on increasing years of aging in American oak barrels, a practice that began when Spain colonized the New World. In recent years, however, winemakers are opting for more subtle softening of Tempranillo’s tannins through use of French oak.

Located in Cataluña, Priorat is Spain’s only other wine region designated for the highest level of quality and these reds are typically made from blending Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon. Another region with strong ties to France –a small group of passionate French winemakers revived the area in the 1980’s—these wines are spicy, complex but elegant on the palate. The famed Llicorella soils define this region and lead to wines ranging from powerful and fruit-forward to structured and earthy.

Coastal Cava and Green Spain

The Penedès region, where 95% of Spain’s traditional method sparkling wine Cava is made, is no less prestigious in its reputation for high-quality wines. Also located in Cataluña along the Mediterranean coast, white grape varieties dominate including Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo—the traditional trio of grapes used to make Cava since the 1850’s. Spanish for “caves” where the wines are cellared, Cava from higher altitudes vineyards rival the best Champagne for its minerality, acidity, and food-friendly characteristics.

Green Spain—the nickname given to the cool, lush northern region of Galicia—is the country’s other region producing standout whites, with Albariño being the most ubiquitous. Highly aromatic, crisp, and bone dry, the best examples hail from the Rías Baixas (“lower fjords”) region which bears a strong resemblance to coastal Ireland. Until recently, the indigenous varietal was a relative unknown but has now become widespread.

Resurging Sherry and Vermouth

It’s hard to believe anything could grow in Andalucía’s hot and arid landscape, but Jerez (Sherry) is home to Spain’s next most famous wine by the same name. In reality, the area receives more rain than other areas of southern Spain, which is then trapped in chalky, limestone-rich soils. Mainly produced from the white Palomino grape, Sherry undergoes a fortification and aging process using a complex system of barrels called a “solera.”
Contrary to popular belief, most Sherry is dry and delicately salty–not cloyingly sweet—and is a wonderful accompaniment to many foods.

Spain is also a noteworthy producer of vermouth, another fortified wine experiencing a resurgence. Starting off as a white wine, vermouth is infused or ‘aromatized’ with herbs, spices, and roots, and depending on the style, sweetened. Along with Priorat and Cava, Cataluña has become the Spanish capital of this beverage and many of the best can be enjoyed straight from taps.

From the Old World to New Mexico

The history of wine in New Mexico is over 390 years old and is as rich and complex as its colorful landscapes. The flavor of this history is expressed in the wines produced here, from robust reds to crisp whites. In 1629, 140 years before the first Spanish missions of California were established and planted, a Franciscan friar named García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first European wine grapes in a pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley in what is now the State of New Mexico.

Viticulture flourished and by 1880 the New Mexico territory was the fifth largest wine producer in America. The cuttings brought to the new world by missionaries from Spain were of a Vitis Vinifera grape variety known as Listán Prieto, or the Mission grape. This variety has been continuously grown and is still harvested in New Mexico today. Over time, California has become the largest wine producer in the US, but New Mexico nonetheless has retained its rich connection to Spain, and this is evident through producers such as Vara Winery and Distillery. An international family of Spanish and America wines, Vara produces wines from Spanish grape varietals grown in Spain and various American vineyards including those in New Mexico.

Let’s celebrate and salute Spanish-American winemaking heritage together! Join us for Elevated España on May 20th at 8:00 PM and re-imagine Spanish wine through this New World lens . Click here to RSVP.

Your Jefas in Vino, Erlinda and Martha