Extract: The wines of Southwest U.S.A. by Jessica Dupuy

20 January 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

The advent of winemaking in the Southwest
While most American history is first associated with British colonization along the east coast of the country at the beginning of the seventeenth century, New Mexico was first colonized by the Spanish. Second to Florida, New Mexico is one of the oldest state names in the country. It was proclaimed Nuevo Méjico in 1565 by Spanish explorer Francisco de Ibarra in his expeditions north of Mexico.

New Mexico also has the distinction of having the longest history of wine production in the United States. As early as 1629, vineyard plantings were recorded among the Franciscan friars who established missionary settlements northward along the Rio Grande. The missions were the result of Spanish exploration by Don Juan de Oñate, the son of a wealthy silver baron in Zacatecas, Mexico in the late sixteenth century, who charted a new route up through the Chihuahuan Desert which later became known as the El Camino Real, or Royal Road, and would become the major trading route from Mexico to the New World. His initial quest was in search of gold for the Spanish monarchy, but he was also charged with establishing a settlement for the Christian colonization of the native Puebloan tribes of the region. Along with him, he brought colonists, Franciscan monks, soldiers, and cattle to establish a foothold in the area. In 1598, he established the settlement of San Juan de los Cabelleros, taking over the existing Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, which was located 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of present-day Santa Fe. Although the area did provide excellent land for livestock grazing and relatively fertile soils for crop farming, because of the lack of gold or any other precious metals the endeavor ended up costing the Spanish crown more than it cared to continue investing. In 1608, with the settlement in danger of abandonment, Friar Lázaro Ximénez traveled to Mexico as an ambassador for Oñate to plead for the continuation of the establishment.

The missions achieved some success in their quest to convert native inhabitants of the region—primarily Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo—but had a major obstacle in the presentation of sacramental wine. Vineyard establishment in the New World had begun as early as 1521, in Mexico’s Valle de Parras, when noted Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés required that on the land they were granted, each Spanish settler plant 1,000 vines for every 100 natives in service to them. The effort was geared to producing sufficient wine for everyday life within the settlement. More than seven decades later, Spain’s King Philip II noticed a steep cut in the exportation of Spanish wine to the New World. At the time, grape production accounted for nearly a quarter of Spain’s foreign revenue. In an attempt to control revenues from the sale of wine and protect the Spanish agricultural industry at all costs, Spain passed a law in 1595 that prohibited grapevine growing in the New World. Instead, the missions were required to await shipments of wine from Spain via Mexico. This could entail a wait of as much as three years, assuming shipments weren’t fated to sink to the bottom of the ocean, due to frequent shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. What little wine did make it to the outpost at New Mexico was often maderized and spoiled from the long, oppressively hot transport through the Chihuahuan Desert.

As a result, and in defiance of the Spanish order, Jesuit priests of Parras, Mexico began planting grapevines at the turn of the sixteenth century and making wine for sacramental use. The idea—and most likely a handful of vine cuttings—made its way to the Piro Pueblo of Senecú, near what is now the city of Socorro, where Franciscan monk Fray Garcia de Zúniga and Capuchín monk Antonio de Arteaga also planted grapes at the mission church, and through the churches of the Rio Grande in 1629. But these vineyards were not long-lived. Throughout the seventeenth century, a combination of harsh winters, massive flooding along the Rio Grande, and frequent skirmishes between the Spanish settlers and the warring native Apache tribe all but destroyed most of the vineyards as well as the entirety of the Senecú Pueblo.

The grape mission
It is unclear exactly which grape variety was planted by the Franciscan monks in 1629, since there are no remains of the original vineyard plantings. However, many believe that it was the Mission grape. According to research from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologica in Madrid, it was the earliest Vitis vinifera grown in the western hemisphere. It is also believed to be the first grape variety planted in the Valle de Parres, Mexico, which is likely where cuttings for the early New Mexico planting originated. Of course, it wasn’t known in Spain as the Mission grape. In its native country, it was Listan Negro, or Listan Prieto, a native Spanish grape that was known for its thick skin and sturdy, hardy trunks. It proved resilient in transfer to the New World as well as productive in the dry, mineral-rich soils of New Mexico. The variety has been genetically linked to Listan Blanco, or Palomino Blanco, the primary grape in Sherry production.

Mission grapes form large, loose clusters that allow air to move through the grapes, greatly reducing the risk of rot and mold. The result is a cluster that can take more time to ripen on the vine. Depending on growing conditions, the vines can easily produce more than 10 tons per acre (22.42 metric tons per hectare) if yields are not managed. They were probably allowed to push for the higher quantities for the Spanish mission sacramental wines in the New World.

In terms of wine production, there’s a reason Mission isn’t topping the list of the wine world’s most planted grapes. Though it has rather thick skins, the fruit rarely develops much concentration either in color or phenolic content. Wines tend to lack structure, depth, and acidity. Though it served its purpose for sacramental wine, it generally falls short in expectation compared to the international varieties that are planted throughout the western hemisphere today.

Today, Listan Negro is rarely seen in Spain, aside from some plantings on the Canary Islands. But it seems to have found a home in the Americas. In South America, in particular, it is grown for bulk wine production and in recent years for serious table wines. Argentina grows it under the name of Criolla, Peru calls it Negra Criolla, in Bolivia it is Missionara, and in Chile, it’s País. While not widely planted in the United States, you can find it in California’s Santa Barbara regions as well as further north near Sacramento.

You can also find it at Tularosa Vineyards Winery in the small town of Tularosa in Southern New Mexico, just east of the Rio Grande. With elevations ranging between 4,500 and 6,800 feet (1,372 and 2,072 meters), the Tularosa Basin, where the town is situated, first saw vineyards in the 1860s from Mission vine cuttings brought by Spanish settlers.

An article in the Alamogordo News in September 1932, describes the town of Tularosa in 1870:

Grapes were planted, and wine was made to supply the local requirements. The principal product was a native sour wine locally known as “cerque” and was freely used by many residents. The usual method of manufacture was very primitive and crude, and in present times would be condemned as unsanitary and unfit for human consumption. The grapes were emptied into rawhide containers; sack like affairs (tinas) suspended on forked posts, which in turn carried square frames of poles to which the rims of the tramping sacks were lashed. Men in their bare feet tramped them to a pulpy mass, sinking to their knees in the process. The “pummies” were then skimmed from the surface as they rose to the top of the fermenting wine. After 10 days without disturbing, the sediment collected in the bottom, and cool fermentation was allowed to complete. The wines were deemed ready 30 days from the second draining. Some wines produced were a well-flavored stimulating beverage, while others made a vinegar-like product that intoxicated and sickened with a nauseating flavor. The most palatable was, of course, in greater demand and brought a better price, but the inferior stuff was still consumed at a profit to the producers.

A century later, Tularosa Vineyards Winery was founded in the late 1980s by New Yorker David Wickham and his wife, Teresita. Following a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, the Wickhams settled in the quaint New Mexico small town in the late 1970s and stumbled into the hobby of grape growing and winemaking. This endeavor would later lead to the planting of 10 acres (4 hectares) of vineyard in 1985 and the opening of their winery in 1989. In 1989, Wickham planted a small vineyard of Mission grapes from the cuttings of a vine he found in the backyard of a man named Ben Chavez in La Luz, New Mexico. The vine was estimated to be a little more than 100 years old. With a trunk diameter of approximately 30 inches (76 centimeters), the single vine is said to have yielded more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of grapes in different years. To preserve the historical relevance of the grape within New Mexico, Wickham has cultivated an acre of Mission vines from which he produces in an off-dry style.

In the following decades, Wickham served as a mentor to other pioneering farmers who were interested in trying their hand at grape growing, buying their yields for his expanding wine production. In 1995 his son took on the role of winemaker, adding Tularosa Vineyards Winery to the growing list of multi-generational family wineries in New Mexico. Today, the winery still operates at a small capacity but produces more than 3,500 cases annually.

Extract from The wines of Southwest U.S.A. © Jessica Dupuy (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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