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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers hunt for the best grapes for New Mexico vineyards

New Mexico's wine industry is both nationally recognized and growing. The problem is, little is known about which grapes are most suited for the state's diverse climate regions. That's why researchers at New Mexico State University are studying the issue, and hope to help vineyards make a better product.

Bernd Maier, New Mexico State University's viticulture extension specialist, shows a plot of grapes during an agricultural field day at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. (NMSU photo by Darrell Pehr.)

"We have so many grape varieties around the world, we are still looking for the best varieties to grow in different areas of New Mexico," said Bernd Maier, NMSU's viticulture specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service. "Eventually, we should be able to make recommendations to growers without them having to do all the work themselves."

According to a recent economic impact study, vineyards contribute $33 million a year to the state's economy. Maier believes that number could easily double in the next four to five years because of recent increases in planted acreage.

"A lot of New Mexico's vineyards are found in rural parts of the state, so they help support the economy in places where other industries don't exist," Maier said.

Maier's study is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with additional grant money from the Viticulture Consortium East and West, regional networks focused on grape research and extension efforts. The trials are in their second year with NMSU working with other universities to study 26 states.

"There is probably a vine that will grow anywhere in the continental United States," Maier said. "Whether or not it makes a good, drinkable wine is another question."

He is using grapes grown in duplicate plots in Los Lunas and Farmington and comparing those with a plot outside of Las Cruces. Each planting has grapes that produce popular wine varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as lesser-known varieties such as tinto cao. Cabernet and merlot are used as references to judge the development time of the other varieties.

Maier said he is most interested in Mediterranean grape varieties because they come from hot, dry climates in southern Italy and Spain, similar to the climate found in New Mexico.

"The main reason we like the varieties from southern Italy is because the ripening process for these grapes lends itself to our climate," he said. "The sugar content, the accumulation of aroma compounds and the acidity of the grapes all work well in this area."

In recent years, New Mexico vineyards have won numerous national and international awards. Maier said that kind of recognition shows that the state's grape growers and wine makers are on the same level as the rest of the world.