By: Rob McCorkle
As tasty as the wine is, what sets Rio Grande Vineyards & Winery apart from similar establishments in southern New Mexico is the incomparable view of the Organ Mountains. I don’t know what owner and winemaker Gordon Steel paid for the property just south of Old Mesilla, but it’s a million-dollar view.
I caught Gordon on a Sunday afternoon out back on the shaded gallery that runs the entire length of the winery which opened its Tasting Room in 2009, chatting with some customers enjoying some fruit of the vine on a sunny afternoon. In many ways, the story of the Rio Grande Winery is entwined like so many gnarly grape vines with the history of the Mesilla Valley, where Gordon’s ancestors settled in the late 1800s.
Wine grapes dominated as the No. 1 cash crop in the 1880s in the Mesilla Valley where Gordon’s grandfather, Samuel Steel, and his great-uncle and state Supreme Court justice John McFie operated vineyards planted with European grape stock, producing thousands of gallons of wine annually. Though seven Rio Grande floods and successive droughts between 1890 and 1910 decimated most of the area’s vineyards, winemaking continued in fits and starts into the 1980s when the industry began a renaissance.
Local history comes alive in dozens of vintage turn-of-the-19th-century photographs displayed on the Tasting Room walls that depict the Steel and McFie family homes and vineyards, farms and local landmarks, such as the Fountain Theater (1887), Lohman Store (1898) and Amador Hotel.
Gordon’s father was 67 when the future vintner was “hatched” in Hatch. At the age of 13, Gordon became interested in winemaking, learning from his dad who made wine from plum and other fruit trees grown in the family orchard. Gordon’s 34-year-career in the Air Force took him to Europe, California and Washington, where he and his wife, Sandi, visited wineries every chance they had with the goal of one day starting their own winery.
After retiring from the service, the Steels in 2005 planted 12 varieties of Vitis vinifera grapes on 10 acres between the highway and the winery, which sits on farmland about a mile east of the Rio Grande. They made their first Estate wines two years later. Today, Rio Grande Winery produces 3,000 cases, or 4,800 gallons, per year. About half of that is sold to other New Mexico wineries.
Gordon and his crew had just gotten finished filling 20,000 bottles not long before my visit. His wine production facility features equipment from Slovenia and elsewhere, a row of stainless steel fermentation tanks and more than 60 barrels of French, American and Hungarian oak for aging. Energy from 60 rooftop solar panels keeps the interior a constant 60 degrees. If there is enough extra wine, Gordon stores it in 300-gallon, heavy-duty PVC containers for bulk sales to other wineries.
Like many New Mexico grape growers, Gordon has had to discover through trial and error what European grape varieties grow best in the valley’s alluvial soils and tolerate temperature extremes. He says his original plan to locate the vineyard behind the winery fell through when he discovered the soil contained too much poor-draining clay, which can cause the vines to have “wet feet” and rot.
Tempranillo (red grapes) from the Riojas region of northern Spain and Malvasia Bianca (white grapes) have done especially well, according to the 62-year-old vintner. Other varieties have proven fruitful to grow, too. He has been especially surprised how many visitors like sweeter wines, and currently has five varieties on the menu, including Vino Blanco Dulce de Mesilla, that he terms the “Sweet Nectar of the Gods.”
“One I was talked into planting that I didn’t think would do well is the Gewurztraminer, which produces intense and full flavored wine,” Gordon says. “I planted cabernet and chardonnay because everyone loves those.”
As we talk, I begin sampling a handful of wines. Patrons can opt to taste five wines for $5 or spend $10 and keep the glass. Most wine by the glass sell for $6, although a glass of Gordon’s non-fortified port will set you back $9. Bottles sell for a quite reasonable $13 to $24, except for the “Port-style” Monk’s Reserve ($32). All customers get to start with a taste of Rio Grande’s orange wine (Queue Tendre) aged for seven years in Hungarian oak. Made from white grapes, the wine proves light and refreshing with only a hint of orange. I can imagine having a glass or two on a hot summer afternoon.
My original intent is to taste five wines from the Dry Red category off Rio Grande Winery’s new spring wine menu. However, after sampling some Vino Rojo Seco, a lighter red made from Spanish Montero grapes, Gordon directs his son, Jason, who is running the Tasting Room, to pour me some Chardonnay, which I rarely drink. I follow his advice to take a small sip and then sit the glass down for 20 or 30 seconds, and then take another sip of the wine made in a French Chablis style. The change between sips — from a slightly tannin-forward tartness to a mellower, more flavorful taste – is unmistakable thanks to a low sugar content and its not being aged in oak like many chards.
His dry version of what can often be a cloying German-style Gewurztraminer proves delightfully floral in taste with just a hint of spiciness at the finish, and not a bit too sweet — the winery’s answer to a Pinot Grigio. It’s understandable how this 2015 variety fared well in last year’s state wine competition in Albuquerque. A sampling of the Tempranillo and Sangiovese (a Bronze Award-winner in state competition) rounds out my session.
The winery offers a small selection of cigars and two choices of cheese platters – a Regular and Premium – to accompany your wine selection.
All of Rio Grande Winery’s wines hold true to Gordon’s approach to winemaking: that all people’s tastes are different and they all don’t have to be made in the modern California style popularized decades ago by a UC-Davis professor. Gordon draws on his sojourns to European winemaking countries and his college chemistry at UC Davis under a different professor who appreciated centuries-old winemaking methods to inform his winemaking.
“If you travel to European wineries, their wines are nothing like California wines. They’re not cookie-cutter and the flavors are different,” he says. “So, my winemaking philosophy would be: let’s take a look at the Old World style and try to capture what’s been done for thousands of years.”
On a subsequent visit to the winery on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I am intent on trying the other reds on the new menu: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and The Spaniard, a nod to New Mexico’s earliest wines made from a blend of four Spanish grapes. I conclude the sampling with tastes of the barrel-aged ports, a white blend and red Zinfandel blend, sold as Monks Reserve, named for the friars from a Silver City monastery who come down to the winery each year to harvest the grapes. At just 10 percent residual sugar and 19.5 percent alcohol content, the mellow ports prove not near as sweet nor as potent as other ports I’ve drunk in the past.
As I retire to the veranda to enjoy a late afternoon glass of full-bodied Zin and am serenaded by a succession of classic country music tunes courtesy of satellite radio, I can almost see the New Mexico pioneers toiling in the earliest vineyards that hug the banks of a tempestuous river, growing grapes that would one day give birth to a thriving wine industry.