Grapes in the desert

Hollie Stephens seeks out the origins of American winemaking


When one thinks of America and winemaking, California often comes to mind first. Deep, rich, silky blends led by Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the sun-kissed vineyards of Sonoma and Napa. Loud, brazen aromas bursting with ripe red fruit, which shout out to be enjoyed with steak (for if wines could talk, the voices of Californian Cabernets would surely be among the most rambunctious). 

Nearly 600 miles north lay the famous Pinot Noir vines of the mild yet humid Willamette Valley in Oregon, protected from the Pacific storms by the Oregon Coast Range. These grapes produce complex wines which may carry notes of white truffle and cloves. Pinot Noirs are lower in tannins and higher in acidity, more suited to growth in cooler regions.

Long before either of these famous West Coast grape regions got off the ground, winemaking in North America began upon quite different terrain. If you were to take a road trip from the vines of Oregon and travel southeast from the Willamette Valley in the most direct direction possible, you would be on highways through miles and miles of national forest, all the way to the colourful city of Las Vegas. Leaving the neon signs in the rearview mirror further east still, you would join the Interstate 40, just south of Grand Canyon National Park. If you stopped for a coffee in Flagstaff, it may be more than the undeniable natural beauty of the surroundings that took your breath away; inhaling deeply at over a mile above sea level can be quite intoxicating. 

Next, on the home straight of the journey, little by little you descend, getting closer by the mile to the dry and dusty land which preceded the West Coast winemaking pedigree. You would pass through the Petrified Forest, famous for its wood whose organic matter has been replicated with minerals, leading to chunks of tree that appear to have been magically transformed into beautiful opal or quartz. Much of the land here has been left alone, unchanged for a long time, longer than can be easily comprehended. Finally, at the terminus of the journey, you would be at an elevation of around 4,500 ft. The climate would be semi-arid, and the sky most likely cloudless. It was here, in Socorro, New Mexico, that the tradition of North American winemaking first began. 

The climate would be semi-arid, and the sky most likely cloudless

Arrival from Spain 

It was the early 17th century when the very first vinifera (meaning, of European origin) vines arrived in the region now known as the state of New Mexico. This was approximately 140 years before a vine was planted in the geographic region that is the state of California today, and almost two centuries before Thomas Jefferson sought to establish a vineyard in Monticello, Virginia. 

Don Juan de Onate, an explorer and colonial governor, led Spanish colonists into the Americas, along with Franciscan monks, crossing the Rio Grande at El Paso in 1598. The objective of the Franciscans in the New World was to minister Christianity to the Native American population. In order to conduct their Holy Communion – the ritual in which bread is eaten to represent the body of Christ, and wine is drunk to represent the blood of Christ – they of course needed some wine. Unfortunately, their wine supply was an ocean away, back on the Spanish mainland. 

The planting of vines in the colonies was prohibited by Spanish law; a rule put in place to protect the agriculture industry back in Spain. Spanish wine exports accounted for approximately a quarter of Spain’s foreign trade revenue at this time, and as such the rulers of Spain were highly reticent to endow the colonies in the New World with high levels of independence and autonomy. For this reason, the monks were required to have all the wine that they needed shipped from Europe. This was far from ideal; each shipment could take months or even years to arrive, and only came ashore in quantities of around 45 gallons at a time. Furthermore, the quality of these arrivals left much to be desired. The wine was transported in heavy stoneware jugs, sealed with a wooden plug or cork, each holding around three gallons of wine. These vessels were woefully unsuitable for the long journey to the Americas. The stone had been sealed with a glaze containing lead, and when exposed to heat for long periods – as was common on these lengthy ocean crossings – the lead would leach into the liquid and began to affect the taste of the wine. 

In addition to these clear shortcomings, the product was unfit for its particular purpose from the very moment that it left Spanish shores. The wine was pink in colour, more akin to what we might call sherry today, at around 18% alcohol and 10% residual sugar, with a saccharine taste. This meant that the appearance of the wine was not very much like the blood of Christ at all. 

The monks were tired of waiting long periods for this substandard product to reach their settlements and decided that they simply must have their own source of wine much closer to home. Fray Gracia de Zuniga and Antonio de Arteaga were able to smuggle in some vitis vinifera cuttings, and these were planted at a Piro Indian Pueblo, located just south of modern-day Socorro. The grape was named the ‘Mission’ varietal. Within four years of plantation, the vines bore their first fruit, and the churches in the Rio Grande valley were able to use locally grown grapes for their holy communion for the very first time. It was an enormous improvement, though it is now thought that the Mission grape would have made for flabby and disappointing wines by modern standards. The friars are said to have used grape brandy to prolong the life of the wine. With an appropriate amount of aging in oak, the wines could develop a deep and dark colour, and sweet, rich tastes.

A testing terroir

In some regards, the grapes that arrived from Spain were right at home in the land that today is known as the Southwest of the United States of America. The hot and dry climate combined with the sandy and stony soils closely emulated the original Mediterranean home of the vines. The arid terrain of the region had the benefit of reducing pests and rot, both of which can wreak havoc on vineyards in more humid locations. 

The land was not without its challenges though. Roots of vines are able to grow deep in search of nutrients, and in some cases the plants hit upon caliche; a deposit of gravel, sand and nitrates which is as tough and impenetrable as cement. 

The starkest change for the grapes was the elevation of their new home. In this ‘high and dry’ location, 4,500 miles above sea level, daily temperature fluctuations are substantial. The high-altitude sunlight is more intense, which causes grapes to grow thicker skins. The tougher, tanned skins mean a more concentrated flavour, and a wine that will age well. The robust skins will also work to protect the fruit from the climatic extremes that are common at high elevations. The hot days and cold nights help to balance the natural acidity of grapes by controlling the production of sugar, which adds structure to the wine once it is ready to drink. 

The rise and fall 

In the second half of the nineteenth century, wine production in the region now known as New Mexico grew exponentially, thanks in part of the arrival of Jesuits, who brought their more advanced Italian winemaking techniques, such as filtering wine using cow skin.

The state had twice as much land dedicated to vineyards as New York, as indicated by a census. Sadly, the rate of progress could not last. Between 1880 and 1910, there were seven droughts and seven floods of the Rio Grande, in addition to some particularly harsh winters. This period of inclement weather lasting 30 years threatened to ruin viticulture of 250 years. The onset of Prohibition dealt yet another blow, though sacramental wine could still be made legally under licence. 

"The winemaking industry in New Mexico would lay dormant until the 1970s"

The worst flood of all came in 1943, and tragically, vines were destroyed entirely. The winemaking industry in New Mexico would lay dormant until French hybrid varietals were planted in the 1970s. Early in the next decade, the American Viticultural Areas (AVA) system was established to identify appellations of origins. As of 2016, there were 238 AVAs, and more than half of them were in California, which today produces more than 80% of the USA’s 800 million gallons annually.

If the West Coast of the USA is characterised by exponential growth, then it might be said that the triumphs of the Southwest have often been under the radar and sporadic in comparison. Perhaps what the two winemaking regions share is a determined individuality and a tradition-bucking nature, which all started with a friar and a monk trying their luck, a very long way from home. 

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