Arizona and Wine: An Unexpected Pairing

Arizona scenery
Arizona scenery

This past week has been Spring Break vacation for me, and the Vancouver weather has been a bit rainy and dull.  So what is a Canuck to do, other than pack his bags and fly down to Arizona to get a dose of sunshine and warm weather, which I really enjoyed.

I have heard and read that there are wineries in Arizona.  I’ve heard of the ones around Jerome in the northern part of Arizona, but had not heard of anything too far south.  I thought the south was too hot for grapes to ripen, but I was wrong.  So I had to visit and see what I’ve been missing.  The area of interest is around Sonoita/Elgin.  It is about an hour and a bit south of Tucson, and as you are driving you see long tall, dried straw coloured grasses swaying in the wind, cactii of course, and a even a few longhorn cattle.   The vines as I drove up to the wineries are still dormant.  Bud break should happen in April in Sonoita, I’ve been told by one of the winery principals I visited.  I also found out that this is the only designated AVA in the state.

A few of the wines I enjoyed from each of the three wineries I visited.

Sonoita Vineyards

Sonoita Vineyards vineyards
Sonoita Vineyards vineyards

Sonoita Vineyards is a 35 year old winery with their first vintage in 1983.  One of it’s claims to fame is one of their Cabernet Sauvignon wines was chosen by national wine critics to serve at a Presidential Inauguration Gala; and another is that they were the first winery established in Arizona. Dr. Gordon Dutt, founder and original winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards, was a soil scientist, who researched in Arizona and found in this area that the soils were similar to Burgundy, France.  Through testing a few grape varieties, the grapes did not get burnt in the sun, and produced wines with brilliant color and acidity.

  • Sonoita Vineyards Sonora Rossa N/V (US$17.82) – This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Colombard; a first for this for me.  Light raspberry and blackberry aromas.  Light body, dry and soft, with delicate raspberry and cherry flavours.  Some minerality on the palate.  The acidity in the wine makes the wine finish dry.    Not bad.
  • Sonoita Vineyards Arizona Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (US$32.85) – has a nice nose of plums, cassis, and vanilla. Full body, round and mouth filling.  Ripe cassis, and purple fruit with a mineral backbone.  Softer tannins.  Some leafiness on the finish.  My favourite of their wines.
  • Sonoita Vineyards Mecasah N/V (US$28.14) – the wine name is a play on the Spanish, “Mi casa”, “my house”.  This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Interesting nose.  Jammy raspberries and ripe berry aromas. Full body, dry, soft and round in the mouth.  Ripe raspberries and tannins with fine tannins.  Some acidity on the finish.

    Sonoita Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
    Sonoita Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Lightning Ridge Cellars

Lightning Ridge Cellars is a husband and wife team; they have been open for 4.5 years.  2007 was their first vintage.  What made me visit this winery is their production of wines from Italian grape varieties.  Ann Roncone is the wine maker, but she was out in Italy researching, so I spoke with the husband, Ron, who was also pouring wines at their small tasting room.  They produce wines from the Italian grapes Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Primitivo, Malvasia and Muscat Canelli.

  • Lightning Ridge Cellars Muscat Canelli 2013 (US$18) – Very fragrant with pine needles and rose petals.  Medium body, soft and dry.  More pine needles and rose petals on the palate, along with peach.  Higher acidity.
  • Lightning Ridge Cellars Montepulciano 2010 (US$25) – Nice vanilla and red cherries on the nose.  Medium body, dry and round, with red fruit, roak and sweet spice.  Some raspberry leafiness too.  Medium acidity and quite dry on the finish, with some pepperiness and more of the leafiness.
  • Lightning Ridge Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – This is a very limited production wine; in fact made from a single barrel.  Medium intensity red cherries, cassis and vanilla aromas.  Medium plus body, round, with a silky mouth feel.  Ripe dark fruit, cassis and vanilla flavours.  Firmer tannins on the finish with some raspberries and raspberry leaf on the finish.  A restrained wine.

    Flight of wines from Lightning Ridge Cellars
    Flight of wines from Lightning Ridge Cellars

Callaghan Vineyards

My last winery for my day of wine tasting was Callaghan Vineyards.  I chose this winery on recommendation from Lightning Ridge Cellars, and am glad I did visit.  Callaghan Vineyards is another winery established for 25 years in Sonoita, and I’ve read was the reason that Ann and Ron Roncone started Lightning Ridge.  Kent Callaghan produces wines from a variety of common vitis vinifera, such as Viognier, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, but more than that they are experimenting with other lesser known varieties to most people such as Graciano, Tannat and Tempranillo.  Some of their wines also have interesting names, such as Lisa, Goldie and Ann.  Any bottle with a name on the label is a blend, and the person is one of their family or friends.

  • Callaghan Vineyards Lisa’s 2012 (US$28) – a white blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne.  Nice nose with aromas of apples, peach and roses.  Light body, soft and dry.  Citrus, a hint of orange and pine needles.  Medium acidity and a light minerality.
  • Callaghan Vineyards Mourvedre 2012 (US$28) – Flowers and sweet cherry aromas.  More flowers and red cherries on the palate along with a hint of vanilla.  Dry, round and soft, but also has higher acidity.   Again I picked up some minerality in this wine, and some leafiness.
  • Callaghan Vineyards Petite Verdot 2012 – I enjoyed sniffing this wine, with it’s coffee and chocolate aromas. Full body.  Mineral, smokiness, red cherries, chocolate, and vanilla flavours.  Overall very ripe fruit flavours.  Softer tannins.  Sweet spices and pepperiness on the finish.  Very tasty.
  • Callaghan Vineyards Backlot 2010 (US$28) – a blend of 50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 25% Tempranillo.  Nice nose with aromas of cloves, oranges, and cinnamon.  Medium body, soft mouth feel.  Light body.  Red cherry flavours.  Overall a very tasty wine, which I could see going very well with a salad on the patio this summer.
  • Callaghan Vineyards Padres 2009 (US$35) – a blend of 60% Tempranillo, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah).  Nice raspberry aroma in the glass.  Medium body, silky mouth feel.  Ripe juicy fruit and red cherries.  Medium length with a soft finish.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – a new release, just for their club members.  A very interesting Cabernet Sauvignon, that in a blind tasting would guess is Cabernet Franc. Lighter tea leaves and red cherry aromas. Light body, soft and dry.  Cedar, and light red cherry flavours.  Light tannins and medium acidity.  A very nice, elegant wine.

    Wines from Callaghan Vineyards
    Wines from Callaghan Vineyards

A Few Thoughts on This Wine Region

As I tasted through the wines from these 3 wineries (although there are 10 in this AVA), I did notice some commonalities.  One is that many of the wines have a mineral component to them.  I also noticed this with the wines from the Temecula Valley in southern California on my Spring Break trip last year.  Is there a common geology that extends across southern Arizona to southern California?  I’m not a geologist, but it is interesting to speculate.  Another common trait I noticed amongst several of the red wines in Sonoita is that they had a leafiness to them, most noticeable on the finish.  Could this be a trait from the soil, or the climate?

I did enjoy my time sipping wines and talking with the winery principals.  I think the easiest way to try any of these wines, is to either travel down to Arizona and visit the wineries, or to join their wine club and have them ship wine to you (Note, if you are in Canada, the wine cannot be purchased privately and brought across the border by courier.  You could contact a local wine agent in Vancouver, such as Liberty Wine Merchants to see if they can bring in some wine for you.)

Overall the quality of the wines are OK.  I do not know that they will reach the same level as Napa, Burgundy or other such regions, but they are producing wines that are enjoyable to drink.  I think Callaghan Vineyards has best tapped into their terroir and paired grape varieties for it.  Other younger wineries, like Lightning Ridge, are still working out what works best for them.  It would be interesting to revisit these wineries in 4-5 years and see how their wines have changed.

Here is a link if you would like to find out more about Arizona area wineries.

Author: mywinepal
Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.