In 1984 the universe of sparkling wine was very different than now. Prosecco was an unknown regional quaff in Northern Italy, and the French Champagne houses were just getting their joint ventures in Napa off the ground. Despite that, Gilbert Gruet---a man who had labored his entire life to create a Champagne label in Bethon, near Epernay---planted an experimental vineyard in New Mexico, of all places.
How did such an improbable situation come about? Gruet was certainly no Taittinger or Roederer. He was a hard-working guy who had planted his first vines in 1952, established a co-operative in 1967, and finally succeeded in realizing his dream. But in 1983, the family was traveling in New Mexico and met some French winemakers who had successfully cultivated vines in the wilderness south of Albuquerque. When Gruet studied the soil and climate, he decided it was perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He dispatched two of his children, Laurent and Nathalie, to oversee the new venture. They released their first sparkling wine in 1989.
Today, Gruet is firmly established in the American landscape. The wines have won every accolade imaginable, and are distributed nationally to a wide network of restaurants and retail stores (in 2014 Gruet partnered with Precept Wine, a family-owned company representing a portfolio of wineries located in Washington, Oregon and Idaho). The original Gruet vineyard comprises 75 acres, with contracts on another 330 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The wines are made by the classic méthode Champenoise in their Albuquerque facility and aged in the bottle for 24 months before release. Laurent is the head winemaker, assisted by the next generation---Sofian Himeur, grandson of Gilbert and Nathalie’s son.
When we look at the success of Gruet, and go beyond their personal story and the undeniable quality of their portfolio, there is the intriguing question of exactly where sparkling wine fits into our wine-drinking life. We’re all aware that the average person is drinking bathtubs full of Prosecco---in fact, global sales of Prosecco have exceeded Champagne for the past five years. Most people assume that price is the motivating factor, but this may not be the whole story. Champagne is complex to understand and frequently difficult to drink. Prosecco presents no such intellectual challenges, and I suspect it would be just as popular if it cost twice as much.
For consumers who do enjoy the complexity of Champagne, Gruet is special. Unlike the sparklers produced by the French-California partnerships, you’d have a hard time distinguishing the Gruet Brut from most NV Brut Champagne in a blind tasting. Perhaps it’s the family pedigree, and perhaps it’s a combination of terroir and real winemaking skill, but Gruet tastes like the real thing at less than half the price.
The Gruet Brut ($15), a blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir, is the cornerstone of the production. It has a bright yellow gold color, aggressive streams of tiny bubbles, and a yeasty nose with aromas of citrus and green apples. The wine is far more sumptuous in the mouth than the nose would lead you to expect: creamy flavors of vanilla wrap around vibrant acidity and highlight the boisterous notes of lemon, lime and apple. The palate imprint is memorable and the finish is long and mouthwatering, with just a hint of red fruits on the extreme length. Because of the unexpected richness of the texture, it will pair well with poultry, veal and pork dishes in addition to the inevitable fish and finger foods, and constitutes a remarkable value on the retail shelf.
The nose of the 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs ($19) reveals attractive scents of vanilla, minerals and brioche. On the palate, the minerality is dominant, lending an earthy edge to flavors of ripe citrus and melon. The texture is medium to full-bodied, with a forceful palate imprint; anyone expecting a wine of lacy refinement will be disappointed here. But the flip side is that this wine, once again, has a range of food pairings much wider than the typical Blanc de Blancs.
The Blanc de Noirs ($17), at 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, is the mirror image of the Brut. The nose exudes attractive floral scents and just the faintest hint of red fruits. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied, voluptuous and intriguing, with a core of intensely ripe red berries. It could be the contrast between the straw-colored appearance and the robust taste, but the wine seems to become more complex with each sip, yielding flavors of ripe melon, peach and tropical fruit. It would make a great match with Thai, Szechuan, Cajun and any other spicy cuisine.
Aromas of strawberry, floral tones and hints of rhubarb spring from a glass of the salmon-colored Gruet Brut Rosé ($17), made from 100% Pinot Noir. The wine is deep, rich and sturdy on entry, giving way to a ripe core of red berry fruit in the mid palate; flavors of red raspberry, strawberry and wild cherry are honed by good acidity and supported by a strong mineral backbone. One of the best things about this wine is the finish: flavorful, resonant and lingering on the palate like a spring day. Aside from its charm, this rosé has the texture to stand up to main courses of poultry, game birds and lamb.