Arizona Desert Wine
Jessica Dupuy for GuildSomm at the online magazine SevenFifty.com wrote about ‘new’ growing regions, including Arizona:
Here’s an excerpt:
Arizona: Desert Wine
Just as the flat, dusty High Plains of Texas may sound like a surprising place for wine production, so might the arid desert of Arizona. While this sunny state is most often associated with cactus-riddled vistas and images of the old West, in recent years, it’s been enlivened with the glimmer of excellent wine.
Based on a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Arizona has a little more than 100 producers and more than 1,000 acres of vineyards. Due to its variations in elevation, the state has a wide variety of localized climate conditions. In the lower elevations, the climate is primarily desert, with mild winters and extremely hot summers. The mountainous northern third of the state has significantly higher altitudes, offering an appreciably cooler climate with cold winters and mild summers.
Sonoita, located about an hour south of Tucson, was Arizona’s first AVA. Once home to large cattle ranches, the plentiful rainfall and well-draining soils prompted several winegrowing pioneers to plant vineyards here in the 1970s. Willcox received its official AVA designation in 2016 and currently accounts for more than 70% of Arizona’s grapes. Though the Verde Valley is not an official AVA, its location in the northwest part of the state boasts high elevations and ideal growing conditions, with ample water from the Verde River and well-draining soils.
According to Nikki Bagley of Arizona Vineyard Consulting, the uniqueness of Arizona is its ability to attain a wide diurnal temperature variation during the growing season. (The swings can be as large as 50°F in the summer months.) Almost all Arizona vineyards are situated within the areas that achieve this, and most of them at elevations of 3,500 to 5,500 feet above sea level. The state deals with an average 12.7-inch rainfall during two specific rainy seasons: Pacific Ocean cold fronts in the winter and a monsoon that pulls tropical moisture up from Mexico to make for a brief summer rainy season. This higher moisture and summer heat brings lightning, thunderstorms, wind, and torrential downpours.
“We’re in an interesting place geographically. You can go from Mexico to Canada here in terms of the different biomes,” says Bagley. “The late summer rains mean we can’t be laissez-faire in the vineyards if we’re shooting for quality. We have to be focused on canopy management, proper spraying, and managing airflow through the canopy. But the exciting thing is, we’ve risen to the challenge.”
Like Texas and California, the history of Arizona wine dates to the 16th century, when Spanish missionaries planted grapevines for sacramental wine. The modern Arizona wine industry began in the early 1980s, following an experimental study from the University of Arizona. The first licensed wineries in Arizona arrived following the 1982 Arizona Farm Winery Act, which ushered in wineries such as Dr. Gordon Dutt’s Sonoita Vineyards, the first winery of this modern era.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, vineyards flourished through the southeastern part of the state. The late Al Buhl established the 40-acre Dos Cabezas Vineyard near Willcox, with Bordeaux, Italian, and Spanish varieties, including Malvasia, which has gained a great deal of attention in the state today. (The vineyard is now managed by Caduceus Cellars, while Buhl’s winemaker, Todd Bostock, took ownership of the Dos Cabezas Wineworks winery, located in Sonoita, in 2006.) While the industry remained small in the 90s, it experienced another burst of energy in the early 2000s, with plantings expanding beyond Sonoita and Willcox into the Verde Valley.
“Lately, there’s been a critical mass of growers and winemakers who are pouring themselves into making great wine here,” says Bagley….
Arizona’s soils vary by region, but Bagley likens them to European soils found in parts of Spain and France. “On a trip I took to Spain, I was amazed at similarities in Verde Valley and some of their alkaline-rich soils. In Southern Arizona, we have more sand, but both areas bring a lot of minerality to the wines. Willcox has interesting volcanic ash in their soil makeup that has made their wines really unique.
In addition to Malvasia, some of the grapes proving most successful in Arizona include Vermentino, Picpoul Blanc, and Viognier. Syrah and Sangiovese have done well in Willcox, while Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel have joined Malvasia as key players in the Verde Valley. Todd Bostock has been encouraged by Petite Verdot, Graciano, Tempranillo, Tannat, Grenache (for rosé), and Aglianico. He’s also recently become excited about Kerner, Lagrein, and the Vranac grape. “We’re still experimenting based on what we’ve seen work in other countries with conditions similar to ours,” he explains.
Like Texas, because of heat and varying degrees of dryness and humidity, Arizona winemakers have had to adjust not only their viticultural efforts but also their methods in the winery.
“We can’t just copy things the way other people have done them in California,” says Bostock. “We have too many extremes. In the cellar, we’ve realized that newer French barrels aren’t as helpful for us, so we’ve moved to larger format vessels like 500-liter barrels and foudre so we can retain more freshness from evaporation.”
For Bostock and other promising producers, now is an exciting time to be part of such a young winegrowing state. He comments, “If you look at places like Texas, Michigan, and the Finger Lakes, they dwarf us in size, but if you zoom in on the quality of wine we’re producing for our overall size, it’s one of the more interesting regions to be watching. Quality-wise, we’re at the table, and there’s so much room for growth. We have a particular set of challenges in Arizona, but it makes the effort more valuable and worthwhile in the end.”
Indeed, when you look at the potential for the United States to grow world-class wine, the opportunity for growth is tremendously encouraging. It’s a topic that should compel American industry professionals scouring the ends of the earth to find the latest exciting wines to stop and consider what’s happening in our own backyard. As producers from California, New York, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and everywhere in between continue to raise the bar for quality wine, time will tell how the rest of the American wine story will unfold.