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NMSU and Local Growers Test European Wine Grapes

ALBUQUERQUE - New Mexicans may soon produce fine European-style wines at bargain prices, thanks to a tiny test vineyard in Los Lunas.



Wine and Vine Society members taste red and white wines that they produced from European wine grapes grown at a test vineyard at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. From left: Tom Conley, Rex Franklin, Joanne Reiter and JoAnn Mantyeh. (11/18/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The vineyard–-housed at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center–-could boost New Mexico's fledgling wine industry by improving the quality of grapes grown in central and northern New Mexico.

"Wine snobs have often turned their noses up at the hybrids we grow here, but now we're producing top-quality European varieties that can compete with the best wines coming from California, Chile or Australia," said Rex Franklin, membership secretary for the New Mexico Wine and Vine Society, which helped NMSU test nearly a dozen grape varieties for the first time in New Mexico.

"We're developing locally grown wines with the mystique and quality of imported brands, but at a much lower price," Franklin said. "These are niche wines with a uniquely New Mexican flavor."

New Mexico growers already produce dozens of grape varieties, including many European, or vinifera grapes that thrive in warmer areas in the south. But most northern growers plant cold-hardy, North American hybrids, which are generally inferior in quality, said Mike English, superintendent of NMSU's Los Lunas science center.

"Vinifera grapes from Eastern Europe have historically produced the world's best wines, but they're hard to grow north of Socorro," English said. "We planted the experimental vineyard to see which vinifera varieties can withstand our winters and alkaline soils while still producing a high-quality wine."

The Wine and Vine Society partnered with NMSU to establish the half-acre vineyard, now in its fifth growing season. They planted 12 red and white varieties, nine of which are new to New Mexico. Society members took responsibility for making and testing wines once the vineyard started producing enough grapes in 2002.

Eight varieties showed good growing potential, with commercial yields above 4 tons per acre, and some made delicious wines, English said.

"They didn't all make good wines, but some were exceptional," he said. "Some have real potential to improve grape production and wine quality in New Mexico."

Two varieties–-red 'Regent' from Germany and white 'Bianca' from Hungary-–were considered so good that NMSU and the Wine and Vine Society are now partnering to further test those varieties in a much larger planting.

"The Regent and Bianca grapes produced over 6 tons per acre each, and they had just the right acidity, color and sugar levels to make excellent wines," said Tom Conley, another Wine and Vine Society member. "The next step is to get local wineries involved in testing these varieties."

Wine industry leaders say such testing is essential for local wineries to grow and expand, because quality is the top challenge facing New Mexico winemakers today.

"Quality is the number one issue to improve business, and the only way to improve our wine quality is by improving the grapes we grow," said Sherri Olsen, legislative liaison for the New Mexico Wine Growers Association. "The experimental vineyard is critical for that reason."

Even with few viniferas, New Mexico wineries and retail tasting rooms have expanded from 19 to 34 in the past five years, Olsen said. Wine production increased from 240,000 gallons per year to more than 400,000 in the same period, while revenue doubled from $30 million to $60 million.

However, grape acreage has grown only 19 percent, so grapes are often imported from surrounding states, Olsen said. Viticultural research in essential to encourage more production.

"For the past 20 years, New Mexico grape growers have been educating themselves about how to improve production using data from other regions with completely different climates and soils," Olsen said.

Last December, industry leaders and NMSU formed the first New Mexico Wine Industry Task Force, which set state-funded research as a top priority. Lobbying by task force members this year helped convince state legislators to approve $75,000 to assist NMSU in hiring its first viticulturist.

"With a viticulturist on board, we can test a lot more grape varieties in central and northern New Mexico," English said.

Meanwhile, the experimental vineyard at Los Lunas is already encouraging grape growers like Rex Franklin to plant new, high-quality varieties. Franklin currently grows 22 varieties in his 1.3-acre vineyard in Corrales, earning about $3,000 per year.

"I planted Regent and Bianca this year, because I can get $1,000 per ton for those viniferas," Franklin said. "That's double what I earn for hybrids."