We recently took a long road trip across the country to visit family and friends in Wisconsin. On our way back to Southern California, we decided to stray from the main highways and meander off on side roads, which is always the best way to learn about an area and have one-of-a-kind experiences. After spending a night in the charming artists’ mountain town of Taos, New Mexico, at a quaint adobe-style motel called Inn on the Rio, we decided to soak up some local flavor by visiting three wineries close to Taos. Our adventure is a perfect day trip for anyone visiting Taos or Santa Fe.
We have lots of experience with California wines but really didn’t know much about New Mexico wines; however, we were pleasantly surprised. We learned that New Mexico’s high desert climate is ideal for producing many wines (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Reisling, Merlot and Pinot Noir) with its hot days, cool nights and sandy soil. At the high elevation of the wineries we visited (5000 to 6000 feet), cold weather is the biggest threat to developing grapes.
We learned along the way that wine was introduced to New Mexico by Spaniards in 1598 with the first grapevines being planted in 1629. By 1800, wine was one of the top three exports from New Mexico, but in 1943 the Rio Grande flooded, destroying the wine industry which eventually recovered in the 1980s. Now there are over 43 wineries in New Mexico. More than 900 acres are planted with vines that produce 700,000 gallons of wine annually.
Our first stop was Vivác Winery. Its isolated setting was picturesque with a small courtyard and tables in front for sipping and gazing at the high desert. We tasted several wines, starting off with a light and fruity 2011 Sauvignon Blanc that was perfect for a first refreshing taste on a hot day. Next we sampled a 2010 Chardonnay, which had just spent two weeks in oak barrels and was nicely balanced and creamy. We particularly enjoyed a 2011 fruit-forward but earthy Tempranillo with its strong berry nose that carried through to the palate. But the hit of the tasting for us was a rich, bold Refosco, with its rich berry and plum tastes—a rare wine in the US that is usually grown in Italy. An added bonus is that this winery offers in-house produced delectable chocolate and savory cheeses for sale in the tasting room. We learned that the name, Vivác Winery, comes from a Spanish term meaning “high altitude refuge,” perfectly characterizing this winery. Many of the grapes for the Vivac wines come from southern New Mexico, but Vivac also has its own estate vineyards. Vivác is located between Taos and Sante Fe on Highway 68. The winery also has a tasting room in Santa Fe.
Our next stop was La Chiripada Winery, which has been producing wine for more than 30 years, making it the oldest winery in New Mexico. Chirapada means “stroke of luck” in Spanish and the winery has a long, colorful history. The cozy, comfortable tasting room is adjacent to a small art gallery with attractive, unique pottery and paintings created by local artists. The winery focuses on Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Merlot made with grapes that are locally grown and also from southern New Mexico. We first tried a 2012 Winemakers’ Select White and loved its light crispness. We also savored the Winemakers’ Select Red from 2010, a Best of Show winner at the New Mexico State Fair. It was rich and luscious, perfect for a cookout of ribs or steak. La Chiripada is located in the town of Dixon, 50 miles north of Santa Fe and 25 miles south of Taos and also has a tasting room in Taos.
Finally we stopped at Black Mesa Winery. We tasted several wines on this winery’s extensive wine list, including a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, a robust Malbec, and a mellow Pinot Noir, but, as the final wine of our day of tasting, we particularly enjoyed the winery’s most popular wine, Black Beauty, an intense red, chocolate-flavored dessert wine. The winery’s tasting room was full of appealing gift items to take back home to friends, including a rich chocolate sauce made from Black Beauty and perfect for serving over ice cream. Black Mesa is located in Velarde, on the highway between Taos and Santa Fe and also has a tasting room in Taos.
We felt these three winery experiences really captured the stark beauty and rich history of New Mexico’s high desert in their remote settings surrounded by rolling hills. After our wine tastings, we were ready for a late lunch at a lovely spot off the beaten path that we had visited before, Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, which has been serving world-famous, traditional, native New Mexican cuisine in an exquisite mountainside setting since 1965. The restaurant is located in a restored, century-old adobe home. You can choose to sit inside or outside on a beautifully landscaped, multi-tiered terrace.
Of course, first we had to try refreshing margaritas as a nice break from wine. The menu is extensive and offers an enticing range of traditional and unique dishes so our biggest challenge of the day was deciding what to order. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch of Spicy Green Chili Stew and Fajitas al Estilo Chimayou—marinated steak topped with grilled onions and bell peppers, served with pico de gallo, guacamole, beans and warm flour tortillas. Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante is located on Santa Fe County Rd. 98 on the famous “High Road to Taos.” Next to the restaurant is a hacienda with seven adobe-style guest rooms.
The winding, mountainous road back to Taos was dramatic and provided the perfect, inspiring backdrop to our day’s adventures in the New Mexico wine country.
photos courtesy of Todd Montgomery