I can't remember when I first became aware of this rarity - a bargain sparkling wine that is widely available throughout the United States – probably when researching The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America in the late 1990s. That it comes from about 70 miles north of the Mexican border makes it even more intriguing of course, and the fact that it is made by a French family just adds to the extraordinary story of one of America's greatest wine buys whose quality seems only to have improved since I first encountered it.
As those who have listened to my podcast from New Mexico will have learned, I spent part of last week with the Gruet family in their winery in Albuquerque and at their vineyard base two and half hours south of that desert town near the tiny settlement of Truth or Consequences. They, and now a few contract growers too, grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines so that they can make a more or less exact copy of the Gruet champagne that their father produced so successfully in the Côte Sézanne in the south of the Champagne region. Father Gilbert was the president of the local co-op in the village of Bethon. His son-in-law Bruno now is. But it is the American operation that is so interesting.
Gruet Brut NV New Mexico retails for around $13-15 but can be found for as little as $10.99 yet it tastes as though it should cost at least twice that. The key to the low price is the low land cost in New Mexico. Papa Gruet paid less than $50 an acre when in the early 1980s he sent his young son and daughter out to the American desert to start up an operation beyond the clutches of the new Mitterand government. The key to the wine's quality is that the vineyards, irrigated from Elephant Butte Lake 15 miles away, are at 4,300 feet, some of North America's highest, so they cool down nicely at night, thus prolonging the growing season. Harvest is only just over, just as in Champagne. The air in New Mexico is also amazingly dry so the vines suffer none of the fungal diseases to which they are so prone. Only a single plague of grasshoppers has posed any sort of pest threat in the last 20+ years.
The wine is made just like champagne: picked on acid rather than sugar - in fact the musts are chaptalised up from nine to 11 per cent alcohol before sugar and yeast are added. The wine is kept on tirage for a full two years before being disgorged by gyropallet. The Brut NV is refreshingly zesty and dry – none of the excess of greenness nor dosage that can mar many a cheap champagne - but it does tastes slightly fuller and sunnier than many champagnes, as anyone who has spent even a day under the remorseless New Mexico sun would expect. The canopy is encouraged to shade the grapes from sunburn.
Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV is the same price and a bit fuller and more perfumed – maybe more suitable for drinking with food than the Brut, which must be the steal of an aperitif. Every wine person I have encountered since meeting the Gruets agrees that this is a really excellent find. Now we just have to encourage them to export it. (Ignore the UK listings on wine-searcher; they refer to a true champagne, but not, I think that of the same branch of the family.)
You can contact Laurent and Nathalie Gruet (with their strong French accents intact) via www.gruetwinery.com where, tellingly, the first page you are offered, even before Our Wines, is Family History. They really are doing it all to make their father's dream a reality.