New Mexico: Southern New Mexico Wine Trail

Southern New Mexico Wine Trail: A Southwestern Gem

We’re very pleased to introduce you to the beautiful southern region of New Mexico, well known for its temperate climate and gorgeous scenery. With 350 days of sunshine a year, this area is brimming with rich history and eclectic cultural influences. And, southern New Mexico is rapidly becoming a destination of choice for those seeking to escape harsh winters and settle into a comfortable, year-around setting.

If you think of New Mexico as having a desert climate, you’re partly right. It’s best described as a state of contrasting altitudes — a skier’s paradise in the north near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Farther south, it’s high desert plains — about 4,000 to 5,000 elevation with warm, dry days and pleasant cool nights.

New Mexico Wine: Background and History

New Mexico, like neighboring Arizona, is one of the U.S.’s newer states, dating back to 1912. But as you can imagine, the area’s history long predates statehood. Spanish colonists settled here in the 1600s, and with them Franciscan monks who needed wine for their daily mass services. The first grapevines were planted in the mid 1600s, thus beginning a long, storied history of wine making here.

As readers of Wine Nomad have come to know, we’ve long preferred tasting wines made with grapes from the immediate area. In our estimation, this provides a true taste of the particular wine region. The subtleties are fascinating to explore from state to state and wine trail to wine trail. And 80% of the state’s grape crop is grown right here in Southern New Mexico.

Like most states, New Mexico’s wine industry is growing and thriving. New Mexico wines are becoming more recognized and awarded in prestigious wine competitions. As of 2010, there were more than 40 wineries in the state, scattered along numerous fertile valleys along the Colorado border all the way to El Paso, Texas. We’re also pleased to note that the New Mexico Wine Growers Association does a wonderful job of promoting wineries and wine trails. There are several annual festivals and comprehensive promotional materials to guide wine travel lovers along the way.

Entering New Mexico from the Arizona border on the west, you’ll travel along Interstate 10 to the small town of Deming, where our first two wineries are located. From Deming, it’s 55 miles to Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city and the hub of our three-day, two-night journey.

Luna Rossa and New Mexico’s Largest Winery

Deming is home to two wineries on the Southern New Mexico Wine Trail, Luna Rossa Winery and St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. Our first stop was Luna Rossa Winery, located just west of town and home of the largest vineyard in New Mexico.

Arriving just before lunch time, we were anxious to sample some of the almost two dozen varieties here. We were impressed with the selections — Luna Rossa offers everything from Pinot Grigio to Shiraz to Chenin Blanc. We settled on tasting several and particularly enjoyed the Gewurztraminer, a lively spicy white. Also try the Sangiovese, a great match with Italian food or just all by itself!

The name Luna Rossa translates to red moon in Italian, and actually the moon here in southern New Mexico often takes on a reddish tint. Most nights are clear and bright so you’ll see a spectacular natural light show overhead, with sparkling stars and bright moonlight to enjoy a glass of New Mexico wine.

After Luna Rossa, you’ll want to visit the second winery near Deming, St. Clair Winery and Bistro. With three locations across the state, St. Clair Winery, and open since 1984, is very visible on the New Mexico wine scene. Producing more than 70,000 cases annually, St. Clair’s wines are widely available at retail outlets in the southwest. The location here in Deming is the actual working winery, quite near the vineyard. The branch locations in Albuquerque and Las Cruces are a combination winery/bistro, offering a sophisticated setting for lunch or dinner.

A visit to St. Clair Winery is a great way to learn about New Mexico wines. More than 30 varieties are produced, all made from southern New Mexico grapes. It’s quite a lot of fun to compare and contrast the taste and texture of New Mexico wines vs. California or Texas. The flavors here are uniquely southwestern — full fruit flavor on the palate, whimsical and fun to drink.

Our favorite wine here was the Meritage, a red wine blend of Cabernet and Merlot. Plum and dark cherry flavors are quite pronounced, and it’s an excellent pairing with a grilled steak. On the sweeter side, don’t miss Mimbres Red, a tantalizing and enjoyable wine with berry flavor galore.

By the way, if you’re planning to eat in Deming, we recommend Ranchers Grill, a famous steakhouse. Looking for a more local specialty? Dig in to the Hatch Chili Sandwich. Hatch chiles are famous in these parts, harvested in the small town of Hatch, located about 20 miles north of Las Cruces. The chiles themselves are mild, rich and smokey, unlike any other chile we’ve tasted. The Hatch Chili Sandwich is served on Texas Toast, and it’s actually a triple-decker sandwich with a lean beef patty and melted cheese Filling, inexpensive, and oh-so-good!

From here, you’re less than an hour from Las Cruces, our home base for two nights and the heart of southern New Mexico.

Las Cruces: Southern New Mexico’s Shining Star

Las Cruces is situated in the Mesilla Valley between the Rio Grande River and the Organ Mountains. Many people think of southern New Mexico as a traditional desert climate, but that’s not quite the case as it’s about 4,000 feet elevation.

Las Cruces has garnered a lot of praise from travel and retirement magazines. Money Magazine rates Las Cruces as a “best college town to retire,” and the ideal location at the crossroads of Interstates 25 and 10 makes it accessible to visitors traveling through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. More than 85,000 people call Las Cruces home, making it the second largest city in New Mexico.

Las Cruces is not only a thriving college community, it’s gaining notice as an arts center as well. Dozens of galleries dot the streets and you’ll be enchanted by southwestern and Native American art, much of it created by local artists. New Mexico State University is a primary influence here, with locals and snowbirds alike passionately rooting for their “Aggies.”

Arriving mid-afternoon, we settled in to our motel and planned out our agenda. Our first stop was Las Cruces’ most well known attraction, the shopping and dining district known as Old Mesilla. Historic Old Mesilla is basically a part of Las Cruces, sitting just south of downtown. At one time, this immediate area was one of the most popular stopping points between Texas and the West Coast. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants, making it a perfect place to while away the afternoon and evening. Stop in at Southwest Wines to browse an impressive array of New Mexico wines from across the state. For fresh pecans and other local treats, there’s Stahmann’s Pecans, whose large pecan farm is open to visitors farther south of the city. Galleries filled with local art and jewelry tempt the passerby, and there are ample watering holes to step in from the sun and cool your heels.

For dinner, stop in at La Posta de Mesilla. A local treasure since 1939, this is where you want to compare the pride and joy of New Mexico’s cuilinary scene, red and green chile. They’re both delicious, and often served as an accompaniment or as part of Mexican-influenced dishes. One such dish at La Posta de Masilla is the Tostada Compuesta. This house specialty consists of a toasted corn tortilla cup filled with frijoles, red chile con carne, topped with chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes and grated cheddar cheese.

If you prefer green chile, the locals favorite is the sour cream enchilada. This dish consists of corn tortillas smothered with green chile sauce, topped with grated cheddar cheese or Monterrey Jack cheese and sour cream. It’s also served with rice and delicious Mexican slaw. After dinner, check out the La Posta Chile Shop where you’ll find a wide selection of New Mexico sauces and food products to take home. There’s also a tasting room for Luna Rossa Winery in Historic Old Mesilla, so stop in for a taste or to buy a few bottles.

New Mexico’s Southernmost Winery

The next morning, we headed south of town on Interstate 25 toward El Paso, Texas, to visit New Mexico’s southernmost winery. La Vina Winery is located in the small town of La Union. This is the state’s oldest winery, open since 1977. The winery hosts several festivals and events throughout the year on its beautiful two-acre grounds and patio. You’re more than welcome to bring your own picnic!

This is a perfect winery to hit if you’re visiting nearby El Paso. You’re only 20 minutes from El Paso and the Mexican border here, and the city is well worth exploring. We spent most of the morning and early afternoon in El Paso, stopping at La Vina on our way back to Las Cruces. The wine list here is eclectic and full of surprises — you’ll find everything from a barrel-aged Chardonnay to a Spanish-influenced Light Port. Our favorite was the Primitivo, a fruity and spicy blush wine, similar to a Zinfandel. Another we took home was the complex Syrah, with notes of oak and vanilla, an absolutely delicious example of the style. Lastly, we liked the earthy Sangiovese, bursting with black cherry flavor and perfect with steak or barbeque.

Heading back to Las Cruces for the evening, we walked the campus of New Mexico State University and headed toward the High Desert Brewing Company for dinner. This award-winning casual brewpub offers a welcoming, if slightly off color, sales pitch for their brewing output: “None of our beers suck.” We’d agree, and the food isn’t bad, either! We enjoyed a rarely found Pale Bock, along with a delightfully hoppy and fruity IPA. High Desert offers live music most nights, and it’s a gathering spot for locals. And if you’re not into beer, try the root beer float for dessert. The root beer is brewed on-site.

Closing Thoughts

The Southern New Mexico Wine Trail is an ideal travel destination for those who like a little bit of everything. You’ll find great weather, wonderful wineries, a thriving art and culinary scene and much more. Best of all, any time of year is perfect for a visit. Summers aren’t too hot and winters are mild. We can see why Las Cruces is a magnet for snow birds, retirees and wine lovers, too!

Cheers!

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