“I always tell people ‘wine is like a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not very good,’” says Sean Sheehan, owner and head vintner at Sheehan Winery in Albuquerque. The small operation has been winning state awards for their accessible, fruit-forward wines since they first opened in 2015, and Sheehan was making wines at other local wineries for years prior to striking off on his own. Throughout the years, he’s developed not only expertise, but a particular style of winemaking that is clearly resonating with consumers in the state.
By knowing both the winemaking “rules” and when to break them, Sheehan has created single-vine wines unlike any others being made locally.
Of making good wines, Sheehan says that the key is to bring the drinker “as close to the vineyard as possible.” This means that the finished product should taste like the grape it was made from and little else; if the grapes are good, minimal intervention is required. In addition to making easy-to-drink wines, Sheehan has developed a penchant for working with obscure grape varieties, all grown in New Mexico. The past couple of years, he’s grown and bottled Mourvèdre, Vidal blanc, and Aglianico grapes, working with local vineyards to grow small batches of a single variety for the sake of experimentation. By knowing both the winemaking “rules” and when to break them, Sheehan has created single-vine wines unlike any others being made locally.
Grapes grow fairly well in New Mexico, according to Sheehan, where the climate is dry and there’s plenty of sunlight to ensure ripening. But we have some particular challenges here, as well. “There’s not enough acid in the soil here and, thus, not as much acid in the grapes,” he explains—which requires winemakers to add in supplementary tartaric acid later in the process. And despite the dry climate being ideal, we also have our share of unpredictable weather that can ruin crops. In 1943, for example, a Rio Grande flood destroyed dozens of vineyards in the state, and the local wine market all but collapsed. Sheehan remembers a hard freeze in the winter of 2011 that killed off acres and acres of grapes and shut down several vineyards and wineries for good.
After soil quality and mineral content, yield size is probably the most important factor in a wine’s flavor, Sheehan says. He typically gets two to three tons of grapes from each acre he harvests, while larger, more commercial winemakers yield ten tons per acre. “When you allow too many grapes to grow on a vine, the root structure can’t fully ripen those grapes and can’t transfer all the [minerals] in the soil to the grapes,” Sheehan says. Limiting the yield by slowly tapering off irrigation throughout the season makes for bigger, healthier grapes and more flavor. As Sheehan’s operation shows, working small-scale can offer big returns.