Two French siblings are producing a champagne-style bubbly in New Mexico — and it’s some of the best sparkling wine this side of the Atlantic
By Kara Newman
“You are in the wine business for a lifetime, not a short time,” declares Laurent Gruet, winemaker at Albuquerque-based Gruet Winery.
Compared to France’s wine dynasties, which span centuries, a mere three decades is just a drop in the champagne bucket. But Laurent and his sister Nathalie Gruet have made a substantial impact in the winemaking industry in that short period, landing their champagne-style sparkler on wine lists at prestigious restaurants across the nation and racking up the awards.
Their story starts in France’s storied Champagne region, which gives the bubbly wine its name. There, Gruet et Fils was established by the family patriarch, Gilbert Gruet, in 1952. Indeed, Gilbert Gruet was born and remembers growing up in Champagne, and learning how to make wine there with his father.
Spurred by fierce competition in the region in the 1980s, Gilbert started exploring winemaking regions in the U.S. The family had heard of the Franciscan monks’ successful vineyards in New Mexico; some Swiss and German winemakers also had relocated to New Mexico to raise vineyards. In 1983, the Gruets purchased a vineyard on the outskirts of Albuquerque, and the following year, speaking barely any English, the younger Gruets moved to New Mexico to make sparkling wines in the style of old-world champagne. The first release was in 1989.
Who knew that the sandy loam soil of New Mexico, plus the hot days and cool nights, would create the perfect climate for making great bubbly?
“It’s very good to grow grapes for champagne,” confirms Laurent Gruet. “We are in high altitude, about 4,300-foot elevation. It’s very dry, free of disease. The quality of grapes are very consistent from year to year.”
The end result is as close to champagne as a domestic wine can get — although it’s not identical, and that’s part of its beauty. Gruet is firm about following the rules of méthode Champenoise — a precise protocol for making and aging champagne in the classic style. Yet, “the terroir is different,” yielding a bit more fruitiness, particularly in the younger wines, notes that suggest green apple and grapefruit, Laurent says. Gruet also produces nonsparkling wines, notably chardonnay and pinot noir.
Meanwhile, Gruet’s sparkling wines have developed a cult following among sommeliers who want to focus on locally made products, appearing on wine lists from New York (“our biggest market in the country,” Laurent says) to California.
So what’s next for Gruet? Expansion, of course. In addition to Gruet’s three existing vineyards, the winemakers are hoping to plant additional grapevines. That expansion theme applies to the family, too: In 2015, Nathalie’s son, Sofian Himeur, was appointed as assistant winemaker, ensuring that the family business continues. After all, compared to centuries of winemaking generations back in France, America’s answer to champagne is just getting its legacy started.