New Wine in New Mexico

Can wine grapes be successfully grown where temperatures reach 110 degrees and higher? Can varietal wines be made and sold in the New Mexican desert? Can European entrepreneurs find happiness in a town without a single nouvelle cuisine restaurant?

The answer is apparently yes. In 1982, Swiss investors bought vineyard land and built a winery outside Deming, N.M., calling it St. Clair Vineyards. They might have been expected to plant Rh.one Valley grapes that flourish in a similar hot, dry climate, but instead they put in 600 acres that included chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, chenin blanc, zinfandel, muscat canelli and barbera -- a total of 17 varieties, to see which flourished.

The visitor is greeted by neat rows of amply spaced vines that seem incongruous in country famous for yucca and cactus. The vines are heavily fertilized, with full leaf canopies to provide shade for the fruit. The first crop was produced in just two years, and although it is too early to tell much about the quality of St. Clair's wines, early results are promising.

St. Clair's principal investor is

the Vuignier family, Swiss wine

producers and merchants for two

centuries. One of the Vuignier

wine-makers, Dominique Tavernier, lives now at St. Clair, where a $3

million winery went up in six

months. It includes the latest technology: two expensive Bucher

presses, stainless steel refrigerated tanks, computerized pump-over for fermentation, and new Limousine oak barrels for aging some of Tavernier's wines.

In addition, St. Clair has installed an elaborate Israeli drip irrigation system run by computer. The winery owns one $75,000 automatic grape-picker andplans to buy two more, rather than depend upon the Southwest's migrant labor force. The total investment so far is about $10 million. The Vuigniers claim St. Clair will be cheap to operate, and that the demand just among New Mexicans for native wine is large. Last year St. Clair produced 50,000 cases of wine, and next year hopes to approach full production -- 250,000 cases annually.

That is a lot of wine and a lot of money. Much European investment in American wine-making reflects a concern over political and economic stability at home, although no one will admit it. The choice of New Mexico is not as outlandish as it sounds. The region resembles those areas in Texas where vineyards have made progress in recent years, but Deming's greater altitude and fertile soil are added inducements.

St. Clair's wines are aged in an above-ground stucco building. Those I tasted suggest that New Mexico's vinous future lies in reds. One of St. Clair's biggest problems is controlling maturation in such a hot climate, where the sugar content can increase 2 percent in a day. The sauvignon blanc was clean and had a trace of grass in the bouquet, but was deficient in acid. So was the chardonnay, and too young to pick up much fruit character.

The '84 cabernet tasted as green as any cab from young vines grown in an oven would be. It had some good varietal fruit, however, and a touch of wood. At $5.75 it would be a bargain anywhere, not simply a curiosity. It was no surprise to learn that the St. Clair cabernet sold out, at the winery, shortly after it came on the market.

James Conaway Conaway on Wine

New Wine in New Mexico

Can wine grapes be successfully grown where temperatures reach 110 degrees and higher? Can varietal wines be made and sold in the New Mexican desert? Can European entrepreneurs find happiness in a town without a single nouvelle cuisine restaurant?

The answer is apparently yes. In 1982, Swiss investors bought vineyard land and built a winery outside Deming, N.M., calling it St. Clair Vineyards. They might have been expected to plant Rh.one Valley grapes that flourish in a similar hot, dry climate, but instead they put in 600 acres that included chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, chenin blanc, zinfandel, muscat canelli and barbera -- a total of 17 varieties, to see which flourished.

The visitor is greeted by neat rows of amply spaced vines that seem incongruous in country famous for yucca and cactus. The vines are heavily fertilized, with full leaf canopies to provide shade for the fruit. The first crop was produced in just two years, and although it is too early to tell much about the quality of St. Clair's wines, early results are promising.

St. Clair's principal investor is the Vuignier family, Swiss wine producers and merchants for two centuries. One of the Vuignier wine-makers, Dominique Tavernier, lives now at St. Clair, where a $3 million winery went up in six months. It includes the latest technology: two expensive Bucher presses, stainless steel refrigerated tanks, computerized pump-over for fermentation, and new Limousine oak barrels for aging some of Tavernier's wines.

In addition, St. Clair has installed an elaborate Israeli drip irrigation system run by computer. The winery owns one $75,000 automatic grape-picker andplans to buy two more, rather than depend upon the Southwest's migrant labor force. The total investment so far is about $10 million. The Vuigniers claim St. Clair will be cheap to operate, and that the demand just among New Mexicans for native wine is large. Last year St. Clair produced 50,000 cases of wine, and next year hopes to approach full production -- 250,000 cases annually.

That is a lot of wine and a lot of money. Much European investment in American wine-making reflects a concern over political and economic stability at home, although no one will admit it. The choice of New Mexico is not as outlandish as it sounds. The region resembles those areas in Texas where vineyards have made progress in recent years, but Deming's greater altitude and fertile soil are added inducements.

St. Clair's wines are aged in an above-ground stucco building. Those I tasted suggest that New Mexico's vinous future lies in reds. One of St. Clair's biggest problems is controlling maturation in such a hot climate, where the sugar content can increase 2 percent in a day. The sauvignon blanc was clean and had a trace of grass in the bouquet, but was deficient in acid. So was the chardonnay, and too young to pick up much fruit character.

The '84 cabernet tasted as green as any cab from young vines grown in an oven would be. It had some good varietal fruit, however, and a touch of wood. At $5.75 it would be a bargain anywhere, not simply a curiosity. It was no surprise to learn that the St. Clair cabernet sold out, at the winery, shortly after it came on the market.