Vara – New Mexico’s Flagship Winery

The history of winemaking in New Mexico is long and storied, going back nearly 400 years when the Franciscan friars and Capuchín monks planted the first European wine grapes in what is now the United States. This predates the establishment of the first missions of California were established by 140 years, where winemaking was later practiced. By that simple fact one can easily understand that winemaking in New Mexico is deeply rooted in American viticulture, and it was, perhaps, the first location it was practiced.

Established in 2016 in Albuquerque by Founders Doug Diefenthaler and Xavier Zamarripa, the Vara Winery & Distillery quickly grew. More recent additions to their impressive staff and consultants include Laurent Gruet, winemaker & partner (previous owner and entrepreneur behind the well-known Gruet Wines), Bob Lindquist, winemaker & partner (of legendary Santa Barbara fame as former owner of Qupé Wines and partner with Jim Clendenen opening the Clendenen Lindquist Vintners’ Winery) and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, winemaker & partner (founder of Verdad Wine Cellars).    

The Vara Winery is unique because it produces wine from grapes grown in Spain and domestically grown varieties from California, New Mexico, and Washington. The Spanish grown grapes are harvested and pressed in their homeland, then transported in bladders to Vara’s New Mexico facility, where the wines are then crafted and aged individually. Once aging is complete, the wines are assembled into their final cuvees. They are then bottled, labeled and readied to be moved into the final market. Vara maintains contracts with their Spanish and stateside growers to ensure consistent, top quality fruit.

They also craft a stunning aperitif, which is reviewed below, and a selection of handcrafted spirits. In the last few years Vara has begun marketing their wines in broader, domestic markets like California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois and Michigan. Keep an eye peeled for their excellent product in your local market, they are worth seeking out and sharing with friends, and the quality is impressive.     

Vara has a brand new winery and tasting campus in downtown Albuquerque, which is a cutting edge facility, and one in downtown Santa Fe. If you’re in the area, both sites are worth visiting. You can find them at

NV Vara, Viña Cardinal (RT94) This unique and unusual wine is a tribute to the first winemaking in America, which was crafted from a Vitis Vinifera variety known as Listán Prieto (aka Mission grape). Bolstering this tradition, this fortified wine is crafted from New Mexico grown heirloom Listán Prieto grapes. The wine is pressed and fermented off the skins, then, fermentation is stopped by fortifying with grape spirits (aka brandy) to 17% alcohol by volume. This is quite simply one of the most unique wines being crafted in America today. With its deep copper, terracotta hue, this aperitif-styled wine wafts up a soaring, alcohol-boosted bouquet of mandarin orange, honey infused baked apple, dried ginger and quince. The bouquet’s harmony creates a unique, magnetic allure. The palate is soft, sumptuous, and sexy as the overall package strikes me as nearly invincible. Drink now-2040+, but who knows if there’s an end to the drinking window?

NV Vara, Cava Método Tradicional, Silverhead Brut (RT91) This blend of Parellada and Xarello (are there any other components?), the percentages of which are unknown, was entirely crafted in Spain and imported to the USA. It predates the introduction of Laurent Gruet at the winery, and Vara has since transitioned to producing a domestic/import hybrid simply called “Método Tradicional, Silverhead Brut”. Its clean, elegant bouquet sends up notes of lemon pith, white peach, smoke, hints of biscuit and a puff of ground rock. The palate conveys a medium weight fruit density with a hint of sweetness that makes it a super-enjoyable, lovely Cava for day sipping. Drink now-2027

NV Vara, Método Tradicional, Silverhead Brut (RT93) This is a hand harvested blend of 72% Chardonnay grown in the Ancient Lakes AVA of Washington, 25% Xarello brought up in Penedés, Spain, and 3% Syrah, grown in the Ancient Lakes AVA. Bottle aged for 18 months; it received 8 gr dosage. With its charismatic fine mousse, notes of fresh Ranier cherry, Bartlett pear, strawberry (from the dollop of Syrah?), brioche, hints of hazelnut, and a whisp of chalk dust emerge. This is very attractive! The palate is built on finesse with wonderfully textured soft fruit that shows its ripeness, echoing through the finish. The mastery of Laurent Gruet is amply apparent here, hats off to this world class sparkling winemaker! Drink now-2028 

2020 Vara, American White Wine, Albarino (RT not rated) Crafted from 100% domestically grown Albarino from the Edna Valley AVA. This wine receives a unique elevage with 50% aged in stainless, the other 50% aged in neutral oak. The two parts are then combined and allowed to come together in neutral oak for +/- 6 months. Unfortunately, this bottle was flawed (premoxed) and therefore not reviewed. It did, however, show excellent promise.  

2020 Vara, Vino Blanco Español, Malvasia (RT92) Blended from Spanish grown grapes, 91% Malvasia harvested in the Penedes, 8% Chardonnay from Empora and 1% Godello from Valdeorras, This medium straw-hued wine shows notes of Golden Delicious apple, ripe Anjou pear, hints of baking spices and notes of wet earth. The aromatics are mesmerizing and classic, deeply nuanced Malvasia. The palate shows ripe fruit and a twang of acidity. As it warms in the glass its attractiveness grows. This is a white for those seeking a richer, more full bodied style. Drink now 2026+      

2019 Vara, Vino Tinto Español, Garnacha Lot 0321 (RT92+) A blend of 75% Garnacha and 25% Cariñena, made from top quality grapes grown in the Montsant and Empora regions of Spain. A small portion of the Garnacha is grown in Santa Rita Hills, California. This wine is aged for two years in French oak, the majority of which is likely used, as it does not show the trademarks of a new oak elevage. With its medium garnet hue, the bouquet delivers relatively rich notes of ripe red raspberry, Kordia cherry, eucalyptus and hints of new saddle leather. The palate shows splendid fruit, ripe and mouth-coating with a hit a fresh acidity and sweet tannins. This is drinking very nicely! Drink now-2029+    

2019 Vara, Vino Tinto Español, Cariñena (RT93) This is an intriguing blend of both domestically grown (California) and imported juice from Spain. 88% Cariñena from Montsant Spain and the J&J Shinn Ranch in Lodi California, and 12% Garnacha from the Empora and Montsant regions of Spain. The results are terrific as notes of spiced red plum, red raspberry, Christmas spices, and hints of charcuterie emerge from this medium garnet hued wine. From the palate emerges a decided spice-layered red fruit, this is very well balanced showing counterpoint with the mouthwatering acidity and soft, suave tannins. Vara has created a lovely wine with this bottling. I’m enjoying this wine very much! Drink now-2029+  

2019 Vara, Vino Tinto Español, Tempranillo (RT92+) This is another blend of imported, Spanish grown grapes and a smattering of domestically grown grapes. 75% Tempranillo and 23% Garnacha, both from the Campo de Borja DO of Spain, and 2% Monastrell from the Central Coast AVA of California. Grapes were hand harvested and fermented in concrete, then aged stateside for 10 months in used French oak. Showing the power and thrust of this iconic Spanish variety, it smacks closely of style of Tempranillo grown in Ribera del Duero with notes of blackberry, Chelan cherry, brambles, tobacco, and a bit of oak polish. On the palate the fruit is gentle and softer, leaning a bit toward the seductive side, yet its power and structure remains firm. The acidity remains fresh and renewing, the tannins soft and ripe. This is a relatively large-scale wine. Drink now-2031+  

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