Las Cruces – It has been nearly 400 years since Catholic monks smuggled grape vines into what is now New Mexico and cultivated them to make sacramental wine for their religious services. Prior to that, missions in the area depended on wine shipped from Spain, the only source sanctioned by the ruling Spanish government.
Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are not indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, so these would have been the first vineyards in the Rio Grande Valley.
Production at the original site near Socorro only lasted about 40 years, due to a variety of factors, and production in the state has fluctuated during more modern times. Today the New Mexico wine industry is expanding rapidly, according to Bernd Maier, Extension viticulture specialist in New Mexico State University's Extension Plant Sciences Department. He reports that production is expanding by 10-15 percent annually. The New Mexico Wine Growers Association website lists more than 50 wineries spread around the state. Economic impact in the state exceeds $60 million.
People passing by NMSU's Fabian Garcia Research Center might notice new wine trellises supporting leafy vines in a field near the landscape gardens. Planted in 2010, the 500 plants of this demonstration and research vineyard cover about one third of an acre.
Maier will be conducting formal research on six varieties of wine grapes planted in that test plot, four reds and two whites: Cabernet Sauvignon, Negroamaro, Montepulciano, Durif, Picpoul Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Bordering the plot are examples of some 24 additional varieties that will provide preliminary indications of their viability in this area and will be available for demonstration purposes.
"The reason we have chosen these varieties is all with respect to their acidity and their popularity here in the state," Maier said. "We concentrate here on Mediterranean varieties because of the New Mexico climate - very hot, very dry - and these plants are from an area with a similar climate with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon. So we expect them to be already acclimated to our Southwestern climate."
Maier received training in viticulture (the study of grapes) and enology (the study of wine) in his native Germany before moving to New Mexico in 1983 to get involved in the wine industry. He started a vineyard and winery near Truth or Consequences, did private consulting and finally joined NMSU in 2006. As part of his Cooperative Extension Service duties, he does 60-80 on-site visits and consultations annually for producers throughout the state.
He has also installed, in collaboration with NMSU's College of Engineering, six meteorological monitoring stations at various New Mexico grape-growing locations: Deming, Anthony, Alamogordo/Tularosa, Corrales, Dixon and Ponderosa. These stations, located in private vineyards, supplement weather information gathered at several NMSU agricultural science centers where vineyards are maintained. The data is used to evaluate growing sites, forecast diseases and analyze winter desiccation of the vines.
One thing Maier will study in the new Fabian Garcia vineyard is the relationship of growing conditions to the potassium content of the grape juice. Potassium tends to be high in grapes grown in the American Southwest. Maier plans to investigate variables of watering and canopy management (pruning and trellis structure) on potassium content. He will also study the relationship between leaf surface area and the quality of the ripened grapes in the typical Southwest climate, characterized by strong sunlight, high heat, low humidity and large daily fluctuations in temperature.
NMSU maintains vineyards at a number of other agricultural science centers around the state, including Alcalde, Artesia, Farmington and Los Lunas.
The vineyard at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde has been used for a recent study of organic alternatives to petroleum-based fertilizers. The researchers were interested in learning if it would be cost-effective for producers to use leguminous cover crops and locally generated compost to supply necessary nutrients.
The research was conducted by Ron Walser, now-retired fruit specialist at the Alcalde science center; Robert Flynn, associate professor in Extension Plant Sciences and Extension agronomist at the Artesia science center; April Ulery, professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences; Steve Guldan, agronomy professor in PES and superintendent of the Alcalde science center; and Milagra Weiss, then a student in PES. They presented their findings, based on data gathered between 2002 and 2006, in a paper titled "Cover Crops and Compost Amendments for Organic Grape Production."
Among the conclusions of the study, the researchers found that using the combination of New Zealand white clover as a cover crop and an alfalfa and horse manure compost "will provide adequate mineral nutrition and increase soil organic matter as well as provide for ecological gains."
At NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, a study of both wine grapes and table grapes is winding down after five growing seasons of evaluation. The research is being conducted by Kevin Lombard, who is a Farmington-based assistant professor and horticulture specialist in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Maier.
The project includes a study of both red and white wine grapes on vines planted in 2007 and a trial of rootstock varieties planted in 2008, as well as temperature monitoring of San Juan County vineyards. The research all focuses on the challenges of raising grapes in the high-altitude environment of the Four Corners area.
The differential effects of a hard spring freeze in 2010 on the vines and on grape production were well-documented in this study. Freeze damage, as measured in May, was lowest for Malbec among the reds and Vidal Blanc among the whites. In terms of post-freeze recovery and productivity, Baco Noir, Kozma and Leon Millot fared best among the reds, while Chardonel, Seyval Blanc, Siegfried, Traminette, Valvin Muscat and Vidal Blanc had the highest yields among the whites.
Freezing temperatures continued to be a problem for the Farmington vineyard in 2011. "We had cold winter temperatures in January and February," Lombard said. "Then a killing spring frost occurred May 2 and 3, at the time of bud break, which is probably what sealed the deal on susceptible grape cultivars, including Malbec and Zinfandel."
Many of the vines that have been performing marginally will be replaced by new entries in 2012, according to Lombard. "They will be used for ongoing evaluations of winter cold tolerance, spring dormancy break, adaptability to high pH soils and yield," he said. "Simply growing grapes is not enough. Evaluating market potential is also important and factors prominently into the evaluations."
Wine lovers in the Las Cruces area will be interested to know that NMSU offers a wine-making class that is open, as an Extension workshop, to a limited number of non-credit students.
"Introduction into Wine Making" is offered in the fall semester as an evening class through a collaboration between the Extension viticulture program and the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. The course will be taught by Maier and Bill Gorman, professor emeritus in AEAB. Topics covered include the fundamentals of the wine-making process, cost factors and marketing strategies for small wineries.
Community members wishing to register for the workshop should contact Maier at 575-646-5943 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about all aspects of New Mexico viticulture and NMSU support for the wine industry, go to http://aces.nmsu.edu/ces/viticulture/