St Clair Winery & Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico
While conducting research to write this review, I uncovered varying accounts as to the genesis of wine-making in New Mexico. The New Mexico Wine Country Web site indicates the first Spanish explorers and settlers brought their European wines grapes with them as they made the Rio Grande valley their new home in the early 1500s. The original grape stocks supposedly remain the source of many of New Mexico’s vinters to this day.
Another source relates that in 1629, Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico in defiance to Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world. Those first wines were planted on the east bank of the Rio Grande slightly north of the village of present day San Antonio by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan monk. Despite conflicting accounts, one fact appears incontrovertible–New Mexico is the oldest wine-making region in the country.
Today the fruit of the vine is cultivated in more than 5,000 acres throughout the Rio Grande valley. St. Clair Winery, situated in the fecund Mimbres Valley is the state’s largest winery. Thanks to day and night time temperature variances that can range by as much as 30 degrees and a growing elevation of 4,500 feet, the winery is reputed to grow some of the best grapes in New Mexico. Forty different types of grapes produce several award-winning wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.
The Deming-based winery sits on several hundred acres and has a 500,000 gallon capacity distributed among seventy different wines under eight labels. It is among the 100 largest wineries in the United States with an annual production of 80,000 cases of wines. Its grapes are trucked from its 200-acre vineyards fifty miles away just outside Lordsburg. At the winery, the grapes are filtered and pressed. Some are barrel-aged for as long as 18 months. In the January, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, my friend Lesley King profiled the wine-making process at the St. Clair Winery for her monthly King of the Road feature.
In 2005, St. Clair Winery launched a wine-tasting room and bistro on the outskirts of historic Old Town Plaza and on the site of the now defunct Rio Grande Cantina. Bacchus would be proud. An extensive wine list showcases St. Clair wines which may be enjoyed in the bistro or the stylishly appointed wine bar. The wine shop also features some of our favorite gourmet offerings as well as wine accessories. St. Clair Bistros can also be found in Las Cruces and Farmington in addition to the tasting room in Deming.
The bistro’s menu is a vehicle for the diversity of St. Clair wines which are used to accentuate the sauces and gravies on most menu items as well as salad dressings and even the bistro’s signature soup d jour. The menus describe the best wine pairings for the bistro’s delicious French country dishes. An old-world style dining room and spacious outdoor patio provide an enjoyable venue for generally very good dining.
27 July 2014: One of the best precursors to a meal at the bistro is the cheese nosh which over the years has undergone multiple transformations. When first offered, guests were allowed to select three from among ten different cheeses to enjoy with Kalamata olives (thankfully pitted), grapes, chunks of chocolate, mango chutney and homemade crostini. The platter was generously portioned and easily sated two diners. Today turophilies (someone who is obsessed with cheese) can still order the cheese nosh and enjoy a wide-variety of surprisingly high quality cheeses. The nosh plate is artisinal in its presentation and delightful in its variety, albeit no longer as prodigious as it once was. Intended to be a “light snack,” the cheese nosh is beautifully plated and colorful.
During a visit in July, 2014, the cheese nosh plate showcased five cheeses with unique personalities in terms of taste and sharpness, texture and appearance. Those cheeses were: Maytag Blue Cheese, a hand-made, cave-aged often considered one of America’s finest blue cheeses; Sage Derby, a mild, semi-hard cheese with a sage flavor and green veins characteristic of sage being added to the curds; Port Derby, a smooth and creamy cheese with an elegant Burgundy veining; Brie, the best known French cheese with a complex flavor and soft texture; and pimento, a softly spreadable cheese featuring chopped cherry peppers. The cheeses are quite good especially when judiciously paired with palate cleansing raspberries and dark chocolate nibs. A variety of crisp crackers is also provided.
26 February 2011: Other sumptuous appetizers are also available. The Bistro’s Green Chile Mac & Cheese, homemade mac and cheese pairing Hatch green chile with a penne pasta topped with a creamy Provolone and Cheddar cheese blend is sinfully rich, a decadent bowlful of richness. This is an entree-sized appetizer easily big enough for two to share. It’s an adult mac and cheese with heady cheeses, perfectly prepared (al dente) penne and Hatch green chile for a piquant personality.
Though it may appear at first glance that the lunch menu is dominated by sandwiches and salads, upon further study, you’ll find that there are a multitude of entrees with only a handful (such as the prime rib) not available for lunch. The dinner menu showcases slow-roasted selections which take a bit longer to prepare. During dinner servings, which begin at 4PM, the sandwiches and lunch pastas come off the menu. All in all, the menu selections are extensive in both quantity and variety.
Many lunch and dinner entrees are served with the house bread, a wonderful loaf accompanied by an herbed (parsley, thyme, garlic) butter. It’s a delicious, crusty bread enlivened by a terrific butter. That bread is the perfect canvas for the bistro’s panini sandwiches. Other sandwich options include the Southwest Tuna Melt, Pot Roast Sandwich, Bistro Dip and a Meatball Po’ Boy. There are three burgers on the menu including a flame-roasted green chile cheeseburger made with Hatch green chile. Burgers are constructed from premium certified Angus ground beef (ten-ounces) made to your exacting specifications.
27 July 2014: If you’re a salad lover, the Bistro will make you very happy, especially if your choice is the Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad, a beautifully plated masterpiece showcasing pomegranate and mango roasted pork loin, spring mix, cucumbers, jicama, shaved Asiago cheese, shaved almonds, and fresh beets tossed with the Bistro’s Pomegranate Wine Vinaigrette. It’s as tasty as it sounds with all ingredients melding in delicate harmony with each other to compose a flavor profile that is savory, sweet, tangy, sharp and absolutely delicious. The roasted pork loin is tender, moist and delicious, a perfect vehicle for the pomegranate wine vinaigrette (which is bottled and available for purchase).
The slow-roasted dinner entrees, including the “king of roasts” prime rib are slow-roasted and therefore not available until after 4PM. These are served with homemade mashed potatoes and a fresh vegetable medley. Perhaps more than any other menu items, the slow-roasted dinner entrees truly accentuate the wines with which they are prepared.
My Midwestern born and bred wife certifies the Merlot braised country pot roast as among the best she’s had outside of her native Chicago. Tender enough to be eaten with a fork, the pot roast is well-seasoned and delicious. It is seared and slow-roasted in its own delicious juices. This is pot roast the type of which you might find directly above a picture of comfort food. It’s a meaty elixir for whatever ails you, a true carnivore’s delight.
26 February 2011: Available for both lunch and dinner is an eight-ounce flat iron steak topped with Cabernet-infused bleu cheese crumbles and accompanied by potatoes au gratin. Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. The bleu cheese sauce and crumbles accentuate that beefy flavor with the pungent sharpness of one of my favorite cheeses, making me wish there were more than eight-ounces to enjoy. The potatoes au gratin are perfectly prepared with just enough more than a hint of cheese, but not so much that it dominates the sweet flavor profile of the potatoes.
27 July 2014: For sheer tenderness, it’s hard to imagine any steak comparable to Sebastien’s Wine Steak, a char-grilled steak prepared to your exacting specifications topped with a wine and mushroom sauce and served with garlic redskin (a term not offensive when describing potatoes) mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. With nary a hint of fat and sinew, at medium the steak is not quite cut with a fork tender, but it’s close. It’s a moist, juicy steak and not solely because of the terrific wine and mushroom sauce. Alas, a special steak is served with pedestrian garlic mashed potatoes, a once popular trend which has had its day.
26 February 2011: The Pasta del Faro is another adventure in pure pasta pleasure and flavor discernment. This creative entree–fresh garlic and olive oil with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Greek olives, red peppers and capers–is sauteed in Chardonnay and topped with feta cheese. There is a lot going on in this dish–a lot of flavor contrasts pitting very strong tastes against one another that go surprisingly well together. It’s a bountiful dish big enough for two to share or for a nice meal the next day when the flavors have penetrated even further.
27 July 2014: The bistro has the audacity to call one of its desserts Jackson Square bread pudding. Having sampled almost every bread pudding offered within blocks of Jackson Square, we savored the opportunity to debunk or validate whether this dessert warranted its name. This wonderful bread pudding passed muster! A New Orleans French toast thick slice of bread is topped with golden raisins, white and dark chocolate, egg custard and topped with homemade butter rum sauce. This bread pudding ranks as one of the five best in New Mexico on both mine and excelsior Larry McGoldrick‘s rankings. The only thing which would make this an even better bread pudding is even more dark chocolate.
Don’t ever and I mean never let the sweet-talking wait staff talk you into trying another dessert, least of all another bread pudding. In 2011, the Bistro introduced a second bread pudding, this one showcasing the flavor of pralines and pecans, two staples of the deep south. Topped with a homemade butter whiskey sauce, this bread pudding suffers from the same fate which befalls other bread puddings. It is absolutely cloying, not tempered at all by just a dash of salt. It’s definitely not in the same league as the fabulous Jackson Square bread pudding.
Whether you’re an oenophile (someone who appreciates and knows wine) or a gastronome around town, you’ll find both creative and delicious wines and very good food at the St. Clair Winery & Bistro, a French country treasure in Old Town Albuquerque.
St Clair Winery & Bistro
901 Rio Grande
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Nosh Platter; Jackson Square Bread Pudding, Pasta del Faro, Sebastien’s Wine Steak, Flat Iron Steak, Pomegranate Chipotle Pork Salad, Green Chile Mac and Cheese,