Truth or Consequences, in the desert of southern New Mexico, is known mostly for its hot spring spas, as well as its quirky name, owed to a radio trivia show that was hosted there in the late Twentieth century. It’s also the unlikely place where, 32 years ago, a pioneering Champagne winemaker planted the foundations for Gruet Winery, which today is one of the largest producers of Champagne Method sparkling wine in the U.S.
“He was a renegade,” said Sofian Himeur, the grandson of Gilbert Gruet, who founded the Gruet winery, and now the assistant winemaker there. As we spoke, we were walking around the winery, located on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It was bottling time, and we watched the bottles going through the assembly line: first, their bottlenecks were flash-frozen to capture all the built-up sediment, then that was removed, then they received an addition of “dosage,” a mixture of wine and sugar, and then the special Champagne cork. The smell of fermentation hung in the air, yeasty and sweet.
Gilbert Gruet was a risk-taker who knew how to find great land before it had been recognized as such. “Even in Champagne, he insisted on growing his vines outside the appellation area, and eventually they included it because the terroir was so good,” said Himeur. In other words, the Gruet founder was ahead of his time—and it has paid off. Today, Gruet’s line-up of sparkling wines are popular in restaurants and retail shops across the country. They make still wines, too, but it’s their bubbly that’s earned them recognition. After all, when we’re talking $16 for a clean, crisp, satisfying Brut—how can you go wrong?
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But Grand-père Gruet was operating on more than a hunch when he planted vineyards with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay: he knew that the climate of Southern New Mexico was actually ideal for growing grapes for sparkling wine. Sandy soils, found across the New Mexican desert, and a growing season marked by hot days and very cool nights, make for the perfect setting for making fantastic bubbly. And that’s actually fairly similar to the climate of Champagne, in France.
“Our growing season is from mid-April to the end of July, and during the day it’s 100 degrees on average, but then we’re on about 4300 feet of elevation, so it gets down to 30 or 40 degrees at night,” explained Himeur. This difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is known as a “diurnal shift,” and it’s crucial for preserving the acidity in grapes, which ultimately makes for fresh, bright and lively wine. Essentially, large diurnal shifts slow the ripening process, so that grapes don’t have too-high sugar levels.
But Gruet has kept its connections to Champagne in one way: it still sends its lab samples there to be analyzed, checking the pH levels and other factors. “We’ve tried to get samples done here and it’s just not the same—it’s not as thorough and detailed as we would like,” says Himeur. So, they ask Dominique Lebeouf, a long-time friend of Gilbert Gruet who does the lab analysis for top Champagne houses like Moet-Chandon, to do it for them. I guess you can take the Champagne family out of France, but it will still retain its loyalty to the home base.
Gruet is mostly known for its Brut wine, which is a blend of 75 percent Chardonnay and 25 percent Pinot Noir. But when I visited, I had my first taste of their “Sauvage,” a zero-dosage bottling made from 100 percent Chardonnay. Dosage, as mentioned before, is a mixture of wine and sugar that is added twice during the Champagne Method process—once, to provide food for yeasts and therefore induce a fermentation in the bottle, so that the wine gets bubbly; and again to top-off the wine just when it’s bottled, because it loses some liquid when it’s disgorged. Although there is sugar in dosage, it doesn’t really make the wine sweet; it’s very difficult to actually taste the sugar when you are drinking the wine. But a zero dosage wine has, as the name implies, no sweetener added at all (the winemaker typically just adds wine, no sugar). That makes for a beautifully clean and pure wine, with the fruit really on display, and the acidity shining through.
If you’re passing through Albuquerque, you can swing by the Gruet winery and sample their wines in their cozy tasting room. You can also request a tour to learn about the Champagne Method process.