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 percent to 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.

University vineyard planted in 2010

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.