THE PATIO AT VIVÁC WINERY, in Dixon, backs up to leafy vineyards overlooking dramatic mountains. Beneath a canopy of grapevines and shade sails, the sound of clinking glasses blends with laughter as locals and out-of-towners sip Rosé of Sangiovese and other award-winning wines over cheese and handmade chocolate truffles.

It’s casual, beautiful, and fun—a delicious stop on a mini wine trail through northern New Mexico that also includes La Chiripada Winery, one of New Mexico’s oldest producers, and Black Mesa Winery & Cidery, in nearby Velarde. It’s also just a sample of the flourishing wine culture in the country’s oldest wine-producing region. With 55 wineries, 65 tasting rooms, and a steady flow of festivals, winery tours, and more, New Mexico’s cup overflows with wine-laced experiences for connoisseurs and novices alike.

“We do not want to be a mainstream wine industry, but we do want to be passionately followed by people in the know,” says Chris Goblet, executive director of New Mexico Wine, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s wine industry. “We want people to come to New Mexico wineries and say, ‘That was so much fun. I can’t wait to go to the next one.’ ”

New Mexico’s winemaking roots stretch back to 1629, when two monks planted vines smuggled out of Spain, which had banned wine production in its colonies to protect its agricultural industry. They planted cuttings of a Vitis vinifera variety known as the “mission grape” on the banks of the Río Grande, south of Socorro at Mission San Antonio de Padua, to make sacramental wine.

From this tradition, winemaking in New Mexico flourished. By the 1880s, the New Mexico territory had become the country’s fifth-largest producer of wine. Disaster soon struck, in the form of seven floods, seven droughts, and Prohibition. By the 1940s, New Mexico’s winemaking days were done—that is, until the 1970s, when small wineries started to crop up, heralding the rebirth of the industry. In 1977, the state’s first modern growers opened—La Viña Winery, in the southern Mesilla Valley, and La Chiripada, in the northern Río Embudo Valley.

La Chiripada co-owner Pat Johnson pours a glass for a customer. Photograph by Douglas Merriam.

“At 6,100 feet, we are one of the highest commercial grape-growing ventures in the world,” says Mike Johnson, while relaxing with a glass of deep red tempranillo on the patio of La Chiripada, which he and his brother Pat founded.

“It’s hard to grow grapes here,” he says. “Every step of the process, you’re at risk.”

Read more: A Grand Tour of New Mexico Wineries

At that elevation, a late frost can strike in May; an early frost, in September. Drought and the acequia system add to the challenges. “When we first started, the New Mexico Vine and Wine Society said, ‘Forget it, you can’t do it here,’ ” he says.   

A sip of La Chiripada’s award-winning cabernet sauvignon, with luscious notes of black cherry and currant, reveals just how much the Johnsons have proved them wrong.

Other winemakers followed, including European investors who planted Italian, German, and French grapes. Today, the state’s impressive variety includes pinot noir, chenin blanc, riesling, viognier, syrah, malbec, gewürztraminer, chambourcin, tempranillo, grenache, and montepulciano. Cool-climate grapes such as chardonnay grow best in the north, while the south’s dry, sun-blazed climate, with cool nights and sandy loam soil, is ideal for many red varietals.

Gruet Winery, which has operated a winery and tasting room in Albuquerque since 1993, helped put New Mexico wines back on the map. Photograph by Douglas Merriam.

“New Mexico is amazing,” says winemaker Laurent Gruet, whose family’s legendary sparkling wines, produced in the traditional méthode champenoise, elevated the Land of Enchantment’s wine pedigree. (He’s now with Albuquerque-based Vara Winery & Distillery.) “The quality of the wine has improved, and it’s still improving. Many wineries are making good wine. It’s happening.”

New Mexico wines reflect the rugged beauty of the place where they are produced. “It’s interesting to marry the terroir with the climate, because they interact so well up here in Dixon,” says La Chiripada’s Pat Johnson. Sandy soil permits the roots to go deep for nutrients and water. Warm days help the grapes build sugar, while cool nights allow them to create acid structure. “We’re always looking for balance between acid and sugar,” he says.

Read more: The New Mexico distillery has rolled out a line of inventive Moscow mule–inspired canned cocktails.

The work isn’t easy. Over the years, the Johnsons have lost entire harvests due to weather and have adjusted how they prune to combat late frosts and freezing temperatures. “Every harvest is different,” Pat says. “We love the challenge. Maybe we can make something unique out of it, a zinfandel or merlot. We’re always experimenting and trying something new.”

Katie Hagan, La Chiripada’s newest winemaker, reflects that innovation. She began working as a tasting room associate in 2018, with the owners mentoring her in the art and science of winemaking. In May, Hagan’s merlot took gold in the 2022 International Women’s Wine Competition. “Mike and Pat taught me how to follow the grape, and I did,” says Hagan, who is one of the few female winemakers in the industry. For her merlot, grapes with low sugar content were aged slightly, resulting in a winning light-bodied red. “In the last couple of years, women are starting to get a little more recognition, attention, and to have a voice in winemaking,” she says.

Vivác Winery hosts picking parties, which includes a wine dinner and tour. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Merriam.

Generational shifts are occurring as well. Children of the New Mexico winemakers who planted grapes in the 1980s have taken over or expanded their roles. “We’re becoming a multigenerational wine-family state,” says Goblet. “It’s a really fun time to be a part of it.”

Goblet believes New Mexico has another huge advantage as a wine destination. “There are no boundaries in New Mexico, nothing so rigid as European standards,” he says. “We can be playful, we can be engaging, we can be nonjudgmental.”

Read More: A new generation is remaking New Mexico’s wine industry—one bottle at a time.

Plans are in motion for the 400th anniversary of New Mexico’s wine industry, in 2029. “It will be the biggest wine party in the history of America,” Goblet says. In the meantime, New Mexico Wine hopes to open Viva Vino, a tasting room in Albuquerque (no location or opening date has been determined), where visitors can sample the impressive diversity of New Mexico wines.

“New Mexico has a casual atmosphere, as do the wineries here,” says Chris Padberg, who founded Vivác Winery, in Dixon, with his brother Jesse Padberg in 1998. “Nobody’s going to turn their nose up at you if you want to put some ice in your chardonnay. This is not Bordeaux.”

Wine Aboard

Board Sky Railway’s Wine Line excursion from Santa Fe and sample wines from a select New Mexico winery, guided by a sommelier. Each train adventure runs 2 to 2.5 hours and includes live music, food, and a ride through northern New Mexico’s stunning mountain landscape.

The Las Golondrinas Wine Festival pairs wine and history. Photograph courtesy of Las Golondrinas.

Taste Sensations

Check out these spirited wine festivals around the state.

Albuquerque Harvest Wine Festival, Balloon Fiesta Park, Sept. 3–5. 

Las Cruces Harvest Wine Festival, Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds, Sept. 3–5.

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, various venues, Sept. 21–25. 

D.H. Lescombes Wine Fest, D.H. Lescombes Winery & Tasting Room, Deming, Sept. 24–25.

La Viña Winery’s Harvest Wine Festival, La Unión, Sept. 24–25.

Taos Winter Wine Festival, Taos Ski Valley and other venues, February 2023. 

Vines in the Pines Art and Wine Festival, Ruidoso Convention Center, February 2023.

La Viña Winery’s Spring Festival, La Unión, April 2023.

Albuquerque Wine Festival, Balloon Fiesta Park, Memorial Day Weekend 2023.

Las Cruces Wine Festival, Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds, Memorial Day Weekend 2023.

Santa Fe Wine Festival, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, July 2023.

Silver City Wine Festival, Gough Park, July 2023.