By Ryan Snyder on August 1, 2005

Category: Winery of the Month

Gruet Winery is located in New Mexico, of all places. However, their story originates in France’s Champagne region where Gruet et Fils was founded in 1952. Gilbert Gruet was raised just outside of the small town of Béthon, on a farm nearly incapable of growing quality fruits and vegetables. Gilbert’s parents handed the family land down to him, and even though he had no prior winemaking experience he planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines to begin making the treasured bubbly. In 1956, he produced his first batch of Champagne and was satisfied with the results. Well, satisfied for about 25 years.

In the early 1980s, Gilbert's success instilled within him the drive to expand the Gruet operation. His son Laurent had since become his right-hand man and together they looked for land in Champagne to plant new vineyards. "It was difficult to expand in Champagne," explained Laurent, "because the price of land was so high." The Gruets knew a few European winemakers who had started vineyards in New Mexico, with pleasing results. So, the Gruet family traveled across the big pond and scavenged the entire state for an ideal vineyard site.

While relatively unknown as a winemaking region, once the Gruets arrived they realized the “Land of Enchantment” had a nearly ideal climate for growing grapes. The hot daytime temperatures dropped 30°F overnight, which cooled the grapes and allowed them to maintain their acidity. The low humidity level reduced the likelihood of mildew or rot. In addition, the land was promising with a well-drained sandy loam soil that would allow the Gruets to produce terroir-driven wines. In 1984, the Gruet family purchased a vineyard near the Elephant Butte Reservoir just outside of the ominouos sounding town called Truth or Consequences. They rented a small facility 3 hours to the north in Albuquerque and had all of the manual machinery shipped in from France.

Laurent’s sister Jacqueline remained in France to manage Gruet et Fils with her husband Bruno. Meanwhile, Laurent and his sister Nathalie relocated to New Mexico to oversee the new operation. Their goal from the get-go was to create sparkling wines in strict adherence to the méthode champenoise, the long-standing tradition upheld in Champagne. By law, Champagne can only contain three grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. The grapes are pressed and made into still wine, which goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle that lasts between 1 and 4 years, during which carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle. "No one knows New Mexico as a wine region, so we have to make quality wines that sell themselves," stated Laurent. "We owe our success to tradition."

Gruet planted all three Champagne grapes in their vineyard, and with the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines producing great fruit, they needed to decided what to do with the Pinot Meunier. "In France, Pinot Meunier is only added to the non-vintage Champagne blends. They never make grand cru Champagne with Pinot Meunier because its flavor is not as full as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir," remarked Laurent. "Pinot Meunier buds around 10 days later than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which means it’s less likely to be affected by frost. But, we don’t face any problems with frost and therefore did not need the Pinot Meunier, so we tore out the vines and planted Chardonnay in their place."

Laurent firmly believes in the importance of monitoring every step of the winemaking process to produce quality wines, even down to the vineyard. 80% of Gruet’s wine is produced from grapes they’ve harvested from their organic vineyard. "Our goal is to use only our own grapes in our wines. Without good grapes, you cannot make good wine. It’s where it all starts."

Gruet handpicks their grapes to ensure the grapes are not crushed before they reach the winery. They are placed in small 100 lb. boxes and shipped in a refrigerator truck at 50°F to 55°F to ensure they remain in pristine condition over the 3 hour drive from Elephant Butte to Albuquerque. Once they reach the winery, the grapes are immediately hand-pressed one box at a time.

Gruet produces four still wines, including a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, as well as Barrel Select versions of both varietals. The Chardonnay is full-bodied, with mandarin orange and baked pear leading the flavor foray. Meanwhile, the Barrel Select Chardonnay is made from the best six barrels of Chardonnay; it is mellow and smooth, with pear, grapefruit and orange flavors.

Gruet’s still wines are good, but their sparkling wines are making palates around the country explode with delight. If you’re new to sparkling wine, or if you simply prefer a sweeter style wine, a great place to start is with the Demi-Sec. Made from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, it shows notes of peaches and a smooth honey-like sweetness that prevents it from seeming too dry. Meanwhile, Gruet’s best-selling wine is the Brut, which is the exact opposite of the Demi-sec. It’s bone dry, with a prominent green apple that nips at your cheeks.

The Blanc de Noirs, literally translated as "White from Black Grapes," is a straw-colored wine made primarily from Pinot Noir grapes. It’s intense, with notes of dried apricot and mango, and at $15 may be the best priced wine on the market. The Blanc de Blancs, or "White from White Grapes," is a vintage wine produced from the best Chardonnay grown each year. Only 1,000 cases are made annually. We tasted the 2000 vintage and it had an elegance reminiscent of French Champagne, displaying notes of luscious Granny Smith apple, pink grapefruit and great balance.

Gruet produces two sparkling rosé wines, which are produced by adding still Pinot Noir wine to sparkling Chardonnay wine. The Brut Rosé is fresh, with notes of green apple, lime and strawberry. The Grand Rosé provides one of the most vivid expressions of fruit you’ll find in a sparkling wine, with tantalizing strawberry, cherry and green apple sure to make you feel like royalty.

As always, we’ve saved the best for last. Laurent agreed, "The Grande Reserve is the best wine I make. It’s made following the same tradition as the great wines of Champagne like Bollinger and Krug." Made from 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Grande Reserve is a rich wine filled with complexities. With each sip you’ll discover a different flavor, from grapefruit to green apple, brioche to gruyere cheese, and truffles to smoke.

What does the future hold for Gruet? They're currently seeking out new land to expand their vineyard holdings in New Mexico, which means more sparkling wine for us. And they recently planted Syrah vines in hopes of producing a line of Syrahs in the near future. "The Syrah vines are only 4 years old," said Laurent. "So they might make something impressive. It’s exciting!"

Trust us Laurent, we’re excited too.