Casa Rondeña Winery New Mexico
wine pixies

Casa Rondeña Winery - Albuquerque, New Mexico

New Mexico native John Calvin established Casa Rondeña Winery in 1995. As an adopted New Mexican, I was aware that the “Land of Enchantment” saw the first planting of vines and making of wine in what later became the United States, in 1629, in fact, more than a century before California. Calvin is supremely proud of this. Our land is tough and rugged, but we love it so. I had been in the habit of passing the lovely Albuquerque winery on my way back from my riding lessons, but, tired and sweaty, and in cowboy boots, I resisted stopping in until I finally called Calvin and arranged an interview and tasting (no boots). The things people say unprompted hold greater weight to me, and I was delighted when Calvin began to excoriate his fellow New Mexican winemakers (I believe there are several dozen) for their sweet tooth. “Nearly every winemaker in New Mexico adds sucrose to their wines,” he tells me, indignantly, with the idea that the public wants exactly that and cannot appreciate a truly dry wine. I remind him he is preaching to the choir in our instance.

It goes without saying that Casa Rondeña remains free of the sucro-evil (except, as we shall see, when a proper level of residual sugar fits the wine style). Fermenting to dryness alone does not a fine wine make, but Calvin knows what he is doing. Perhaps this is true because he is fundamentally a musician, the product of years of patient training (particularly in Flamenco guitar), but “sensitivity” is itself a sensitive subject, and I ought not to speculate. I will allow the wines, all New Mexico appellation, to speak for themselves.

The first vinifera plantings in North America in 1629 were a variant of Spainís Tempranillo grape, according to Calvin. As homage, the 2008 Casa Rondeña 1629 release, $39, is a Tempranillo-led blend with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. “My aim with the wine is to capture what I call a High Desert Terroir.” Calvin tells me as he pours. “We age for two years in oak, 30% each of neutral French and American, and 40% new Hungarian.” The deep warmth of chocolate is immediately sensible on the nose, with cassis, blackberry, and a touch of clove. Medium grain tannins and acidity laced with dark berry flavors make this an agreeable wine. We compare the wine with a not-yet-for-sale 2009, this time aged in 100% new Hungarian oak: tighter grain and denser than American. Here my nose got cocoa instead of the chocolate of the 2008, with tobacco leaf and warm spice. “French oak brings out more vanillin and butterscotch aromas,” Calvin explains.

Calvin also brings in some history. “From about 1750 to nearly 1900 the New Mexico wine industry flourished, but it took off after about 1885 with the coming of vast railroad networks.” Unfortunately, the same railroads favored the Californians, who by 1900 had eclipsed the New Mexican industry. Prohibition polished off anything left. The late 1960s saw some hippie-based “back to the land” efforts, but in the late 20th century serious efforts by winemakers like French-transplant Gruet created a modern industry. “The sad fact,” Calvin complains, “is that, in the face of California, many New Mexico winemakers equate sugar content with cash flow. It doesnít have to be that way.”

The 2008 Casa Rondeña Meritage Red, $25, is a “true to the Bordeaux tradition” blend of 48% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. “I keep this wine 100 days on the skins,” Calvin explains. The extended maceration leads to near impossible tannin levels by day 60, but apparently it softens and becomes supple by about day 85. “I need to carefully monitor volatile acidity, of course.” The oak regime is the same as the 2008 Casa Rondeña 1629: French, US and Hungarian. There is a medium-intensity nose to this with subtle red fruit, earth and wood. On the palate, the wine is very dry, with firm tannins and medium body, red berries, black plum and red plum. Finishing long, this is an excellent food wine now, or cellar it for some contemplation in later years.

The 2009 Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc, $27, which is plumped up in typical Right Bank Bordeaux fashion with a 9% level of Merlot, greeted these two Cabernet Franc fans with aromas of barnyard, briarwood, black plum, baking spice and cedar. “These seem to just fly off the shelves,” Calvin proudly relates. Casa Rondeña sells more than half its wine at the winery itself. A former builder, Calvin designed and built the winery, which, although not far from downtown Albuquerque, is in the lovely Los Ranchos neighborhood, surrounded by Riesling and Gewürztraminer vines. The cool-climate white grapes take to the mile-high altitude, but the red grapes grow primarily several hours away in the south of the state at about 4,000 feet. All vinification and aging takes place in Albuquerque. This Cabernet Franc is medium to full-bodied, with a palate of earth, wet leaves and cocoa, and soft tannins from the 90-95 day maceration. “We aged in French and American oak, none new,” Calvin stresses, “since we have enough tannins already.”

The 2011 Casa Rondeña Viognier, $23, is the product of a cool fermentation entirely in stainless steel, with no oak contact. The grapes are from Tularosa and the Deming area, both in southern New Mexico. The wine has a light clear straw color with a green tinge. On the nose, ripeness comes first, then a white floral note, and then distinct tropical fragrances of mango, pineapple and melon. My first note on the palate is a sprightly acidity, my second an absence of alcoholic heat that often characterizes Viognier (this one is 13.5% abv). Lemon and tangerine palate notes with some mineral aspects shine through to a dry medium-length finish. This is the kind of good honest summer wine you can consume all too quickly.

Now finally to the sugar, but here it belongs. The 2011 Casa Rondeña Serenade, $39, is a product of the Riesling (87%) and Gewürztraminer (13%) vines that spread out in front of us as we talk and taste. It is cool fermented 90 to 100 days in stainless steel, is not allowed even a glance of oak, and has about 2% residual sugar. The delightful nose is tangerine, citrus, lemon flower, adding honeysuckle to the mouth-filling palate. As a well conceived Old World style Riesling, the sugar balances the high acidity, making for a luscious mouthfeel, full body, with a long finish redolent of ripe citrus (and no sweet taste at any point). Calvin, who worked and picked grapes in the Mosel region of Germany during his learning curve days, considers this wine Alsatian in style, but I want to disagree with him and liken it more to a good Mosel effort. This finish lasted with me through my fifteen-minute drive home, down lovely Chavez Road, out onto sprawling Fourth Street (once the original Route 66), and then left on Montaño Road to face the mountains we love here (and which I frequently climb). All of a sudden, New Mexico wine made perfect sense to me.

Verdict: Wines of Enchantment

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New Mexico produced the first vinifera wines in North America nearly 400 years ago. The high altitude winemaking region is certainly worth watching today.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Casa Rondena winemaker John Calvin

Casa Rondeña winemaker John Calvin and his winery in Albuquerque. The vines here are Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Elevation: 5,000 feet above sea level.

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