Short History of Wine Cultivation in New Mexico

Posted by Elle Seybold on Wednesday, September 11th, 2019 at 12:36pm.

New Mexico is the oldest wine country in America by roughly 200 years with a history of wine as rich as its colorful landscapes.  In 1598 Don Juan de Onate led Spanish colonists to the upper valleys of the Rio Grande with Franciscan monks following.  Wine was an important part of religious ceremonies but was difficult to attain in the region.  Initially, the monks were forced to use imported wine that contained 18% alcohol and 10% sugar and was transported in stoneware jugs which held approximately 2.6 to 3.6 gallons each and were sealed with a cork or wood plug.  The jugs were lined internally with a lead-based glaze – which could leak into the wine during prolonged exposure to heat or the acid in the wine.  The monks were desperate for a local source of wine but importing grapes from Spain was forbidden.  Finally, out of either rebellion or desperation, obedience to the Spanish ban on grape exports came to an end.  In 1629, Fray Garcia de Zuniga and Antonio de Arteaga smuggled vines out of Spain and planted New Mexico’s first grapes in a field just south of modern-day Socorro.  The cuttings brought by the missionaries were of Vitis vinifera, commonly called the "mission grape".  This variety is still grown in New Mexico today.

Throughout the 1600s, the relationship between Spanish settlers and Native tribes was tumultuous. Battles between the settlers and the Pueblo people destroyed many vineyards.  These battles, coupled with bitterly harsh winters, threatened the prosperity of the grapes.  Nevertheless, by 1800 vineyards had been planted from Bernalillo to Socorro in central New Mexico and from Las Cruces to El Paso Texas in the southern part of the state. 

In 1868, Jesuit priests settled in New Mexico, bringing their Italian winemaking techniques to the state, and even founding their own winery in 1872.  Over the next decade, wine production increased nearly tenfold, and by 1880, New Mexico has more than two times the grapevine acreage of New York and ranked fifth in the nation for wine with almost a million gallons annually.

Prohibition crippled New Mexico’s wine sales, despite this, vine acreage doubled between 1920 and 1930.  Then, in 1943, the Rio Grande experienced the largest flood of the century.  Countless vineyards were devastated.  Vineyards that had been producing wine for fifty years were destroyed. What remained of the old commercial wine industry in New Mexico never recovered from these floods.

It wasn’t until decades later, circa 1978, that small wineries opened creating wine from mostly French-Hybrid varietals. These cold hardy grape vines prospered in the North.  The first of the wineries was La Viña, which holds the title of the longest continuously operating vineyard in the state.  The same year, La Chiripada Winery, nestled in the scenic Embudo valley, planted its vines and produced its first vintage in 1981.  By the 1980's production of wine was up and a rush on New Mexican vineyard land began. The rush was led by a group of European investors who were attracted to New Mexico's still underdeveloped wine market and inexpensive land.  Interestingly, the largest vineyard in New Mexico, New Mexico Vineyards, belongs to Luna Rosa Winery in Deming New Mexico.

Today, New Mexico is home to more than 40 wineries and vineyards that produce thousands of gallons of wine annually.  Those fortunate enough to savor a glass from our rich landscape will taste centuries of captivating history, and the passion of local winemakers who never gave up.

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