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. Live jazz music Wednesday through Sunday nights will enliven your dining experience.
One of the best precursors to a meal at the bistro has got to be the Artisan nosh platter which will challenge you to select three from among ten different cheeses to relish with Kalamata olives (thankfully pitted), grapes, chocolate, mango chutney and homemade crostini. In three visits, these some of the cheeses we’ve opted for:
- Manchengo (a hard-textured, relatively mild Spanish cheese made from sheep)
- Emmental (a sweetly aromatic hard cheese characterized by large holes)
- Asiago (a fruity, slightly sharp cheese with an interior full of small holes)
- New Mexico goat cheese (soft and creamy with a slightly sour taste)
- hard Cheddar (a smooth-textured, sharp cheese named for one of our favorite English villages).
Each cheese resonates the inherent flavor of the other items on the platter (and it is one prodigious platter), whether that flavor be sweetness or acidity or anything in between. It instantly became one of our very favorite appetizers in town. You don’t have to be a turophiliac (someone who is obsessed with cheese) to enjoy the wide-variety and surprisingly high quality of the cheeses available.
The menu includes two other nosh platters–the American nosh and the Crostini nosh, both of which include their own pleasant surprises. Other sumptuous appetizers are also available. The Bistro’s Mac & Cheese Wedge, homemade mac and cheese baked with fresh Alfredo sauce and penne pasta topped with creamy cheese sauce and grated Cheddar, 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 and perfectly prepared penne.
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 not available for lunch. The dinner menu showcases slow-roasted selections which take a bit longer to prepare. Also available only after 4PM daily is the bistro’s prime rib. 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. The ham and brie sandwich, however, is served on a multi-grain bread dressed with a honey Dijon mustard. A more pungent mustard with a powerful presence would have accentuated, maybe even made too strong the sharp, creamy cheese. The honey Dijon instead provides a nice contrast and marries wonderfully with the shaved ham.
Even better is the New Mexico Goat Cheese & Roasted Peppers panini sandwich in which the goat cheese should be and is the starring attraction. The sweetness of the roasted peppers (primarily red) are a real complement to the sharpness and slightly sour taste of the goat cheese. New Mexico should be very proud of its award-winning goat cheeses, most of which are good enough to convert even the most staunch chevre chastising diner.
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. The garlic chicken, for example, is slow-cooked in Chardonnay along with enough garlic (an amazing 40 cloves) to ward off a family of werewolves. Thankfully the slow cooking renders the cloves sweet and as tender as dumplings. On this French country style dish, the chicken falls off the bone in a manner reminiscent of coq au vin.
My Midwestern born and bred wife certifies the Merlot braised 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.
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.
Aside from the sandwich menu, the only other section of the menu which doesn’t seem to be entirely a vehicle showcase for St. Clair wines is the pasta section where various sauces adorn a phalanx of pastas. The pasta cordon bleu features seasoned chicken, ham and garlic sautéed in olive oil and basil tossed with a Dijon cream sauce and topped with Provolone cheese. Served on a bed of penne pasta, it is nearly as rich as pasta carbonara.
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.
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.
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.
Chocolate lovers and those who don’t necessarily appreciate the fine qualities of bread pudding (and for this, they should seek therapy) might delight in the Bailey’s Chocolate Delight offering, two sheets of chocolate cake separated with a chocolate and Bailey’s Irish cream mousse and topped with confectionery sugar. You can almost feel those calories piling on and your teeth’s mock protesting as you eat forkful after forkful of this decadent, oh-so-chocolaty treat.
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
LATEST VISIT: 26 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Nosh Platter; Jackson Square Bread Pudding, Pasta del Faro, Mac & Cheese Wedge