Variety is the spice of life, and wineries around the country continue to diversify from traditional winemaking by crafting unique wines with heat — especially great sips for the long, cold months.
Albuquerque, N.M.’s Noisy Water Winery, owned by a family of fifth-generation New Mexican farmers, makes two Caliente wines — a semi-sweet Rojo Caliente Red Chile Wine and an off-dry Besito Caliente Green Chile Wine.
“New Mexicans are chile-obsessed,” says Jasper Riddle, president of Noisy Water, which led the brand to try infusing its wines with Hatch green and red chiles. “We actually lease a portion of one of our farms to a chile farmer and got the red this year from him.”
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To make the wine, Riddle infuses chile into a base wine for extraction. “We’ve learned the hard way that chile peppers have a large variability of heat,” he says, “so we make a concentrated amount and blend that back into the large lot to try to control any variability in heat.”
“They crazily are a top seller,” says Riddle, inspiring the winery to continue experimenting with heat — to a certain degree. “We’ve done an extra spicy red chile wine before and do a chocolate red chile fortified wine every so often as well,” he says. “We’ve had people ask us to make ghost pepper wine, but we might need to draw the line on that one.”
The popularity of chiles in New Mexico was also the inspiration behind the two chile-infused wines crafted at Lescombes Family Vineyards, a winery owned by the eponymous family who emigrated to New Mexico from Burgundy in 1981. “Here in New Mexico, we pair everything with chile,” says Sandra Pacheco, national sales director at Lescombes. “Why not wine?”
The winery has been producing bottles of its Hatch Green Chile wine for close to 30 years and debuted its Hatch Red Chile in the mid-2000s. To make the wines, “we purchase the chile peppers only from certified New Mexico growers,” says Pacheco. “We cold soak New Mexico chile in our wine tanks for an average of three weeks, where the wine and the chile create a fusion of flavor.”
Lin L’Heureux, owner of Copper Beech Winery and winemaker in Hooksett, N.H., loves a good challenge. “One day, a customer said to me, ‘Lin, your wines are all so good, I bet you could ferment anything,’” she says. “I was at a farmers market next to a nice gentleman with a huge crate of jalapeños, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder…’”
Enter: Copper Beech Winery’s Caliente.
L’Heureux does not infuse the Caliente wine with the peppers; instead, she ferments them. “Back to my love of a good challenge, I actually ferment whole, locally grown jalapeños, with the addition of water, sugar, and yeast,” says L’Heureux. “The yeast ferments out the sugar, and I’m left with a gorgeous, hot, lightly golden, dry wine.
The Caliente isn’t just for sipping; it can also be used as an ingredient in cocktails like Spicy Margaritas, Bloody Marys, and Dirty Martinis. “And, of course, some folks drink it straight — either at room temperature or chilled,” L’Heureux says.
In 2011, native Idahoans Crystal and Von Potter were already making traditional wines at their Potter Wines in Garden City, Idaho, when they thought it was time to have a little fun with wine. Soon, they created their Original Jalapeño Wine.
“My husband said he wanted to try making jalapeño wine,” says Crystal Potter, “and I admittedly did not love that idea. However, it turned out so well and was such an instant hit at the farmers markets, we kept going.”
Every harvest, a portion of the winery’s Riesling grapes is saved to make the spiced wine. Potter sources jalapeños from local farmers, and the peppers and grapes are then fermented together. The couple also uses their Original Jalapeño Wine to make Jalapeño Wine Lemonade, which is packaged in a pouch. “It’s a hit everywhere it goes, and incredibly travel-friendly,” says Potter.
What’s next? “We’re always conjuring up something new and fun,” says Potter. “We have a sparkling version of the Jalapeño Wine and other seasonal flavors such as strawberry, watermelon and peach. We make a chipotle version and have experimented with habanero peppers to make a scorching version; that one is wild.”
Three-generation, award-winning Galena Cellars in the farm town of Scales Mound, Ill., produces over 60 award-winning wines, including many from locally grown grapes in the tiny tourist town of Galena, Ill. In 2017, the winery released its first bottles of Jalapeño Wine.
Not only is the Jalapeño Wine one of Galena’s top sellers, it is also the main ingredient in the winery’s popular Jalapeño Wine Bloody Mary that is served in its tasting rooms.
“Of course, our family has a love for wine, but coming in close second is the Bloody,” says Galena Cellars winemaker Eric White. “So, why not combine the two?”
The base wine is Riesling, as its vibrant acidity complements the spice of the peppers. A large quantity of jalapeños and serrano peppers are then added to the wine and soaked anywhere from two to four weeks, depending on their spice potency. “After tasting, when we have determined that we have extracted the right amount of spice, we will take the concentrated blend and ‘dilute’ it in more Riesling to what we feel is the right balance,” says White. “It’s all about matching the spice level to the acid as well as the residual sugar.”
Galena works with a local grocery store to source its jalapeños, as its winemakers found that local producers could not supply the winery with enough peppers to keep up with demand. “Not to mention, we hand-insert a dried pepper into each bottle, which allows the consumer to visualize what they are about to taste,” says White. “When we bottle age with the pepper, it tends to get spicier over time.” For his next release, White dreams of aging this wine in former Tabasco hot sauce barrels.
While Caliente wines may still be up and coming, these creative winemakers are proving that the industry will never stop innovating. And as temperatures jump and we hurry into warmer seasons, these spicy wines that have warmed up winter remain relevant, bringing a different kind of heat the table.