Wine enthusiasts are occasionally given to talking about “desert island” wines, usually in the form of which region they would choose if limited to one.
That’s a decidedly different notion from “desert” wines, which might seem like an oxymoron given that grapes (or most anything) cannot grow in pure, inert sand.
Turns out, though, that most classical wine grapes originated in the desert-laden Middle East, according to research and genetic testing at the University of California, Davis.
Since then, grapevines have thrived in arid climates — rain-free harvest seasons are a particular plus — and stellar wines have popped up in unexpected places.
Like Arizona, New Mexico and now Baja California.
In the first two cases, we’re talking high desert. At its elevation, the huge swing in temperatures from day to night helps grapes retain acidity and not produce flabby wines.
Arizona actually has 121 vineyards, but little of its wine reaches us. What does — red blends from wineries such as Caduceus and Dos Cabezas — is worth checking out but won’t fit the budgets of those who stay under $20 with their wine purchases.
Neighboring New Mexico, on the other hand, is a veritable font of bargain bottles in the bubbly bailiwick. Domaine Saint Vincent’s sparkling wines are simple pleasures for around $15, while Gruet’s offerings, most in the same price range, are killer bargains.
This is an exemplary operation, launched in 1984 by a family that was making dandy Champagne in France. Gilbert Gruet had the foresight to see that Champagne’s hallmark grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay, could thrive in the high desert near Truth or Consequences, N.M. (Actually, it wasn’t just foresight: On a visit there, Gruet heard that grapes had been planted in that location in the 17th century.)
The family found a way to use the classic, painstaking process from the homeland known as méthode Champenois and still produce affordable wines. The Blanc de Blancs (using only chardonnay grapes), Blanc de Noirs (using only pinot noir) and Brut (75% chard, 25% pinot) are exemplary wines, punching way above their price point.
They’re uniformly exuberant but true to their French roots with vigorous mousse (the mass of tiny bubbles forming as the “head” in the glass). Attention, all you June brides and grooms: You could not do any better on the quality/value spectrum than choosing Gruet for your reception. And the rest of us should be enjoying it on less special occasions, from a festive weekend picnic to a dreary Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in an even more parched landscape to the south and west, Baja California, parts of which get about 2 inches of rain a year, is emerging as the cool new kid on the vinous block.
“In the last 10 years there has been a drastic change in the quality and the amount of wine in Baja,” said Jami Olson, co-owner of Centro and Popol Vuh restaurants in northeast Minneapolis. “We pair [wines with dishes] around the world. But before we even opened, I had tried to get Mexican wines here to bring more awareness to Minnesota.”
Getting customer engagement at Popul Vuh has not been difficult for reasons beyond the quality of the wines. “People love to hear the stories of the winemakers there, and most of the wineries we bring in are boutique,” said Olson last week by phone from Baja. “And people want the whole experience; they want to be more adventurous.”
That interest goes beyond the predictable hipster hangouts. Baja wine dinners have been big hits at Al Vento, La Fresca and 6Smith, and another dinner sold out (70 seats) at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth. Glass pours of a variety of Baja wines are available at those restaurants, along with Don Raul, Lolito, Tongue in Cheek, 112 Eatery and Duluth’s New Scenic Cafe.
Among the retailers carrying a few Baja offerings: Hum’s, the Minnetonka Haskell’s, the St. Louis Park Top Ten, the North Mankato MGM and two outlets in Moorhead (99 Bottles and Bridgeview).
The most widely available bottle is the marvelous L.A. Cetto Valle de Guadalupe Brut, an energetic, tingly sparkler with a sensuous start and finish and an under-$20 price tag. I also quite enjoyed L.A. Cetto’s chenin blanc, a chardonnay/vermentino blend from Casa Magoni and the Rhône-like red blend Pionero.
And this is just the beginning. Despite obstacles — huge export taxes and difficult transportation access in and out of Baja’s narrow valleys — Olson doesn’t expect to see the pipeline dry up.
“We will see more of these wines,” she said, “and more affordable ones.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com.