When I walk through the front door of Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, I’m hit with the wonderful smells of wine production: the sweet, fragrant aroma of freshly pressed grapes and the earthy smell of oak barrels. I can hear the gentle, high-pitched clinking of bottles as they move through the bottling line. Laurent Gruet, the son of founder Gilbert Gruet and the company’s winemaker, shows me around the winery.
There are several containers of fresh Chardonnay grapes just in from the vineyard waiting to be pressed. Nearby, a giant hydraulic grape press reaches nearly to the warehouse ceiling. Rows of tanks, the largest of which can hold 60,000 bottles of wine, fill one room. Workers scurry across the wet concrete floor busy with various tasks. Bottles ready to be sold move like little soldiers through the bottling line. Each bottle is disgorged, topped up, corked, labeled and prepared for sale—a thousand cases per day. It’s a beautiful, circular process that symbolizes how far Gruet has come in 25 years. I sat down with Laurent to talk about the history and future of Gruet, and to find out what the future may hold for the wine industry in the Land of Enchantment.
Gilbert Gruet was born in Bethon, France, in 1931. He dreamed of making high-quality Champagne and in 1967 he started a co-op in Bethon where he convinced farmers to tear out sugar beets in favor of vineyards. After successfully making Champagne in France, Gilbert decided to open a winery in the U.S. but found that land in California was too expensive. After traveling through the Southwest, Gilbert discovered that New Mexico had ideal conditions for the production of sparkling wine. The price was right and in 1984 he planted vineyards in the town of Engle, in southern New Mexico. His children, Laurent and Nathalie, moved to New Mexico to help and Laurent has been making wine here for the last 29 years.
So what is it, exactly, that makes New Mexico ideal for the production of sparkling wine? Laurent says there were several factors that drew his father to plant vineyards here. “New Mexico is special because we are at a high altitude,” he explains. This creates a large swing in temperature from day to night, which results in grapes that retain acidity, a key factor in the production of sparkling wine. “The climate is also very dry,” he continues, “so it’s disease-free. There’s no mildew or rot, which means that the quality of the crop is very consistent.” Last, and possibly most surprising, is the soil in New Mexico. “The soil is very poor,” Laurent says, “which is great for vineyards.” The poorer the soil, the deeper the vines’ roots must dig into the subsoil in search of nutrients, which results in concentrated, flavorful grapes and better wine.
Gruet has come a long way in 25 years. When the company released its first sparkling wine in 1989, produced in a rented facility in Albuquerque, people thought they were a bit crazy. But the Gruet family never doubted. Laurent says, “I knew we could make great wine here because of the soil and the climate.” Others weren’t so sure, but the quality of the sparkling wine spoke for itself. “Taste the wine,” Laurent said to people, “and then tell me I’m crazy.” Then and now, Gruet holds its own against other sparkling wines and Champagnes in blind tastings.
In the beginning, Gruet produced only about 2,000 cases. “Now, we are making 125,000 cases a year,” Laurent says, laughing. “It’s great!” This year, Gruet partnered with Seattle-based Precept Wine, a large family-owned wine company that will provide sales, marketing, public relations and events services for the growing company. Gruet is hoping to increase production to 250,000 cases in the next five years and to broaden its market to include other countries. All this means more work for Laurent, but he’s full of passion for winemaking and very excited to increase production. He tells me with a smile that he’s spent his whole life working 18-hour days in the winery but still loves it. “When harvest arrives, I smell the wine and it’s happiness for me. I love what I do.”
Growing the business also means Gruet will be able to make more of its high-end wines, which are currently only offered in limited quantities. Although Gruet is most famous for its Brut and Blanc de Noirs labels, the winery also produces a vintage Blanc de Blanc, a grand reserve that’s aged seven years on the lees and a Grand Rosé. Laurent says, “These wines are the next level. Of course, the price is higher so we don’t make much, but it’s another step in terms of quality to make more of these high-end wines.”
For Laurent, the future of Gruet boils down to quality. “My expectation for more volume is to make wines of even better quality. And improving the quality of Gruet means improving the value.” Price is an important factor for the company, which needs to stay competitive in a crowded market that Laurent describes as wall-to-wall. “You cannot be too expensive,” he emphasizes. “You can always find wine from countries like Chile or Argentina with amazing value. If you are too expensive, people will buy something else.”
Quality is key for the future of not only Gruet but the wine industry in New Mexico as a whole. Although grapes have been grown here for hundreds of years, modern day commercial wineries have only been around for the past 25 years or so. “When I first came to New Mexico, I couldn’t drink the wines because they weren’t made very well,” Laurent remembers. “Now, slowly, we have some wineries that are starting to be driven by quality.” He believes that quality wine produced in New Mexico must start in the vineyards. Wineries should plant their own vineyards because “it means a big difference in quality,” he explains. The idea is that the quality of the fruit will be higher and more suited to the purposes of a specific winery if that winery has control over the fruit. More New Mexico vineyards will increase quality and, also, growers and winemakers will begin to discover which varietals work best here. “Which grapes will make the best wine in New Mexico?” Laurent wonders. “In 100 years, it will be obvious, but right now, we are in the process of discovering.”
Gruet is hoping to be part of this process by planting more of its own vineyards in addition to those it already owns in Engle. The company does purchase grapes from growers in Deming as well as other states, including California and Washington. But this year, Gruet planted a new vineyard near Santa Ana Pueblo (you’ve probably noticed the vines if you’ve driven from Albuquerque to Santa Fe recently). The Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Munier grapes will become part of the blend for Gruet wines in the future.
While I walk with Laurent through the winery, I ask him if he thinks others in New Mexico will follow in Gruet’s footsteps and start making sparkling wine. He doesn’t think so. The process of making sparkling wine is very specialized, especially if it’s made by the methode champenoise, the traditional process used in Champagne and the process used by Gruet. It involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle and an extended aging period, which ties up inventory. Gruet, for example, ages its non-vintage wines for 18 months. This is great for the quality of the wine—aging on the lees (dead yeast cells) is what gives sparkling wines and Champagnes their distinctive biscuit aromas and creamy mouthfeel. But this means that the grapes harvested in 2014 won’t make it to the shelves until much later—so profit is delayed. The specialized equipment required for sparkling wine production is also very expensive.
So how does Gruet make such great sparkling wines while maintaining reasonable prices? “When you make sparkling wine,” Laurent says, “you are in the wine business for a lifetime.” It takes years of investment and hard work to succeed in sparkling winemaking, but Gruet has done just that. The winery has achieved a presence on the national scene and even earned a spot on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List in 2011. As with New Mexico’s wine industry as a whole, Gruet’s future is all about quality. “Our wines are very good,” Laurent says, “but for a winemaker, the goal is always to make better wine. We want to push production to a new level of quality. That’s the drive and it’s exciting,” he says, adding, “and it is possible.”
The Gruet Winery is located at 8400 Pan American Reeway NE in Albuquerque. 505.821.0055.
Originally published in the September, 2014 issue of Local Flavor Magazine.