You don't have to go to New Mexico to taste Gruet's still wines, but it helps.
If Gruet isn't already on your go-to list for affordable sparkling wine, it should be. The quality-price ratio for its non-vintage Blanc de Noirs ($14) is as high as it gets; I don't know a better traditional-method bubbly under $15.
About 80% of Gruet's 130,000 annual cases of wine are sparkling. But that still leaves more than 25,000 cases of still wine -- a lot more than plenty of well-known wineries.
And that's enough to make Gruet the standard bearer for New Mexico's growing still wine industry. The state has 40 wineries now, but fewer than 10 have trained winemakers, says Bernd Maier, extension viticulture specialist for New Mexico State University. Many also import grapes from Colorado, Texas or Lodi, California.
But Gruet -- which leaves its options open on its basic bubblies by using "American Sparkling Wine" on the label instead of Wine of New Mexico -- shows what can be done in the High Plains; all of its still wines are made exclusively from the state's grapes.
The most interesting Gruet still wine is brand new this year: A 2010 Chenin Blanc ($11) from 25-year-old-vines that were planted by a farmer who owned the land before the Gruets emigrated from France.
Laurent Gruet said that until this year, he had been using the Chenin Blanc grapes in Domaine Saint-Vincent, a cheap second-label bubbly usually sold to banquet halls for weddings and the like.
"I was using them to bring up the acidity," Gruet said. "But last year I tasted them and I knew they were ready. I probably harvested a little too early. If it was harvested a day or two later, it would be better."
You gotta love an American winemaker these days who errs on the side of picking early, and after tasting the wine I'd say he didn't err at all. With its earthy nose with hints of violet, lemony opening flavor and strong earthiness that grows on the finish, it has as much character as a good Loire wine. And it has great potential to stump your wine geek friends.
"We put it in a blind tasting recently right here in Albuquerque, and nobody guessed New Mexico," said brand ambassador Lori Anne McBride.
Who would? Does anyone yet know what New Mexico terroir tastes like?
It wouldn't matter if you did: Gruet's 350 acres about 10 miles from the suddenly gentrifying town of Truth or Consquences -- Richard Branson's commercial space port Virgin Galactic is being built nearby -- are apart from almost all of the other vineyards in the state. And the rich tourists Branson flies into space will have to rise more than 4,000 feet before they can look down on Gruet's high-elevation plantings.
The vines are planted in caliche soil, found in the Kalahari Desert but not so often in wine regions. That means phylloxera is not a threat, and neither are rot or mildew. The vineyards are not organic, but Gruet says he uses minimal pesticides.
Gruet planted Pinot Noir from the start for his bubblies, so it's no surprise that he makes a still one. What is surprising is that the 2009 ($20) is so good, though he says it's an aberration. He says the 1999, made the same year his father Gilbert died, set his highest standard for New Mexico Pinot, and only in 2009 did he hit it again. With its lively acidity, raspberry fruit and mushroomy notes, it's a fine wine and superb value.
"The secret is no malolactic, to keep the acidity high," Gruet says. "Oregon should do malolactic because they have such high acid. But the rest (of America) should not do malolactic to keep the balance. This wine is done in Burgundy style, no pumpovers, no punchdowns. I believe Pinot Noir is the king of grapes. You can get great red wines and great sparkling wines. It's the only grape that can do that."
Though the Gruets have no sparkling use for Syrah, he planted some anyway because he likes it. The 2008 ($17) is light-bodied, spicy, with a gamy note in the aroma that's subdued in the flavor, and plenty of tangy acidity to make it food-friendly.
Laurent Gruet plans to add another still wine to the lineup soon: A rosé made from Pinot Noir. But there's a limit to how much non-sparkling wine he can make. The 45,000-square-foot winery, built beside an industrial highway in Albuquerque, is at capacity already; more still wine would mean less sparkling. He knows where the business is, but still ....
"You can never forget to have fun, making wine," Gruet says. "I've been working hard for three weeks, doing harvest. You can't do this if you don't love it."