New Mexico

A New Home For Cabernet Franc?

31 August 2013
Casa Rondeña

Casa Rondeña

The Bordeaux variety of Cabernet Franc, like Malbec, has long played second fiddle to its more glamorous blending partners of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec, of course, emerged from Bordeaux obscurity and came into its own in Argentina, where it produces ripe, powerful wines. Cabernet Franc is perhaps best-known as the major ingredient in the Loire Valley’s Chinon wines, but I think it may have found a very comfortable new home in the New World: New Mexico.

I only tasted a handful of New Mexican Cabernet Francs, but not for lack of trying. In one tasting room, when I asked about a Cabernet Franc, the winery representative replied, “Yes, we used to make one, and it was great, but you try to sell a Cab Franc in New Mexico.” I’m sure the marketing isn’t easy, but keep at it! The New Mexican Cabernet Francs I did manage to find were thoroughly delicious. The state needs a signature grape, and this could be it.

The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “Cabernet Franc is particularly well-suited to cool, inland climates,” and though New Mexico is inland, I never regarded it as a particularly cool place. It’s right next to Arizona, Texas and Mexico, after all. But New Mexico has a startling array of microclimates, ranging from scrubby deserts to cool Alpine-like forests, often within just a few miles of each other. In much of the state, the elevation ensures that temperatures remain moderate and that there is wide diurnal variation. Cool nights mitigate the effects of warm, sunny days, and they ensure that the grapes ripen slowly and evenly. New Mexico has plenty of poor soil, plenty of hills, plenty of sun, and in many places, an ideal temperature range. Add a little irrigation, and you have some serious potential terroir.

Hardy Cabernet Franc can survive the sometimes harsh New Mexico winters, and with the long, sunny and warm growing season, the variety can routinely achieve a ripeness it sometimes lacks elsewhere. That was what really struck me about the Cabernet Francs of New Mexico — their luscious ripeness and general lack of vegetal qualities often associated with Cabernet Franc. These were wines I’d be proud to serve at any dinner party.

New Mexican Cabernet Francs aren’t available at every corner wine shop. But should you find yourself in New Mexico, or should you happen to find one elsewhere, don’t miss the opportunity to try it. Who knows? Maybe someday New Mexican Cabernet Franc will be as ubiquitous as Argentinean Malbec. Twenty years ago, that wine sounded perfectly ridiculous as well, don’t forget.

Here are three examples of New Mexican Cabernet Francs that I particularly enjoyed:

2008 D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc: This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. The French Lescombes family has winemakers going back six generations. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

2009 Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc: Located about 15 minutes up the road from the St. Clair tasting room, this Albuquerque winery stands like an Andalusian pleasure palace amid an acre or so of vines. I tasted a number of well-crafted wines here, including this very elegant Cabernet Franc. I knew immediately from the aroma of creamy, drank fruit that I was going to really like this wine. It was dry, with restrained, almost tight fruit. Then a lift of spice, a note of violets and a tannic finish. Again, there was nary a hint of green pepper; the flavors of dark fruit, earth and flowers dominated.

2011 Estrella del Norte Cabernet Franc: This attractive winery and tasting room nestles near the southern end of the High Road to Taos. The vineyards on the property date back 18 to 20 years, and lay abandoned until the current owners of Estrella del Norte bought the land in 2007. I saw some photos of what the winery looked like when Estrella del Norte purchased it, and the vineyards were an overgrown mess. What a contrast to today’s tidy rows of grapes. This Cabernet Franc, a more recent vintage than the ones above, had a lovely jammy nose and a more fruit-forward flavor. A pop of black pepper took over after the initial hit of dark fruit, followed by a softly tannic finish. I detected an intriguing savory note underneath as well, which might become more pronounced as the wine ages. At this point though, it’s zippy and fun, and once again, not at all vegetal. For this quality, the price of $29 seems about right.

This is not just plonk for tourists — these ripe and well-balanced wines could compete favorably with any comparably priced Cabernet Franc on the market. It may be a few years yet, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last you’ll hear of New Mexican Cabernet Franc.

Postcard From New Mexico

28 August 2013
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Ponderosa Chardonnay

Ponderosa Chardonnay

Who knew New Mexican wines could be so delicious? I’ve tasted quite a few so far, and it hasn’t been a case of unearthing a few gems in a sea of mediocrity. The vast majority of the wines I’ve sampled have been well-crafted and delicious enough for me to want a second glass. In fact, the only true disappointment of the trip has been a mouth-puckeringly tart Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend from France’s Loire Valley!

What a contrast to the Chardonnay pictured above, produced by Ponderosa Valley Vineyards. I drank this delightful wine over a relaxing al fresco lunch at the surprisingly pleasant Museum Café, set between Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The Ponderosa Chardonnay had a lovely green-gold color and a fresh, limey aroma. It started sweet, with a note of honeysuckle, but the wine was admirably balanced with gingery spice and bright acids. Paired with some duck flautas, the spiciness of the wine really jumped out.

This Chardonnay retails for about $17.50, according to the Ponderosa website, which seems like quite a fine deal to me. If I see a bottle in a store, you can be sure I’ll be snapping it right up.

Santa Fe’s Accidental Distillery

24 August 2013
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Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan, founder of Santa Fe Spirits, didn’t set out to be a distiller. He worked for years as an architect, and was working as such on a local property containing an apple orchard. The deal fell through, fortunately for us, and Keegan and his wife ended up buying the home themselves.

Faced with a surfeit of apples, Keegan pressed his harvest into juice, which he then pressed into the hands of as many friends and neighbors as he could. He did not succeed in getting rid of all the juice, however, and he tried his hand at making hard cider. But even then, there was still too much cider to store, and Keegan distilled the remainder into apple brandy.

When the economic downturn hit, Keegan decided it was time to reevaluate. Because of his success with his apple brandy, he turned his hand from architecture to full-time distilling, and Santa Fe Spirits was born.

Now, Keegan has expanded into a building he owns in downtown Santa Fe, the former site of a nail salon. It offers a range of intriguing cocktails created with the various Santa Fe Spirits spirits, as well as tastings of their entire line of products. After chatting with the personable Mr. Keegan, I got down to business. Would Santa Fe Spirits compare favorably to Koval, Few and North Shore, my favorite hometown craft distilleries?

Expedition Vodka: Talk to almost any distiller, and you’ll find that vodka is not their passion — vodkas on their own have little flavor. But the distributor of Santa Fe Spirits suggested a vodka was needed to round out the product line, and Keegan obliged with this six-times distilled corn-based spirit. (Santa Fe Spirits actually purchases a vodka that has been distilled five times, and distills it once morethemselves.) The result has a clean and lightly fruity aroma, with a very smooth texture. The alcoholic bite takes its time to build, increasing slowly and steadily. A very classy vodka, and surely a fine neutral cocktail base. If I had to assign it a flavor, it reminded me, subtly, of honeydew melon.

Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey: I am generally not a big fan of white (unaged) whiskies. I find them fascinating to taste, but the idea of an entire glass usually seems like a bit much. This 92-proof malt-based spirit changed my mind. Keegan pointed out that 100% of the distillate for this whiskey is intended only for this whiskey — none of it is diverted into aged products. That means only pure hearts (the best part of the distillate) end up in the Silver Coyote. It has a round and fresh aroma, and an appealing caramel note on the palate followed immediately by a burst of spice.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. It definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Apple Brandy: The spirit which started the company ought to be memorable, and it proved to be one of my favorites of the tasting. I enjoyed the aromas of vanilla and overripe apples, and I loved rich texture leavened with a bang of zesty spice. A worthy calvados competitor.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

That’s five for five. What an unexpected pleasure, to taste these well-crafted spirits which exhibited real local character.

Road Trip: New Mexico

21 August 2013
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En route to Ruidoso

En route to Ruidoso

While New Mexico may be known for its glorious landscapes and tasty green chile, New Mexican wine is not often a sommelier’s first recommendation. But Gruet‘s sparkling wines taste quite delicious, and there are numerous other wineries scattered around the state. Something must be happening down here, and I’m going to find out what.

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