November 9, 2015
The quiet industry of Arizona’s winemakers is producing increasingly excellent, under the radar wine. In the arid desert a hundred-odd miles south of Phoenix, a climate that doesn’t lend itself to viticulture, crops of Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and other grape varieties have overcome the elements to produce plump, juicy reds and crisp whites. This is robust wine, blood of the scorched earth it comes from, and perhaps the most under-appreciated product of any American terroir.
Triumphing against adversity – frost, drought and inevitable loss of harvest – is a small, close-knit community of wine enthusiasts who have made headway in a highly competitive marketplace. Almost all of Arizona’s budding wineries are located in one of two concentrated areas to the South, where better grapes are produced in the higher altitude and cooler temperatures. Their styles vary widely, unique to each specific winery, but they are connected by their joint goal of putting Arizona wine on the map.
The region’s only AVA (American Viticultural Area accreditation), Sonoita covers a large area of hilly countryside in the southeast corner of the state. Home to many producers, this is perhaps the most established area for red wine.
Callaghan Vineyards is the most renowned product from the Sonoita wine trail and has been releasing wine since 1991. A family affair, Kent Callaghan runs the business with his wife, Lisa, producing excellent Spanish and Mediterranean varietal red wines. Widely considered a pioneer by his peers, it was Kent’s estate that finally drew the attention of critics, most notably the internationally renowned wine critic Robert Parker.
Dos Cabezas WineWorks sits in an unassuming row of shops in the town of Sonoita, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for with its wonderfully intimate tasting room. At the long copper bar, Todd and Kelly Bostock (another husband-and-wife duo) serve their full line-up of wines, spanning the clean whites of El Campo Blanco to a rich, 100% Syrah, La Montaa.
Lightning Ridge Cellars started as a hobby for Ann Roncone while she worked as an engineer in San Francisco, but it soon became her life’s work. Inspired predominately by the wines of Italy, Roncone produces a dry Muscat Canal and medium-bodied Montepulciano, both of which are garnering praise for bringing a taste of Italian wine to the Arizona desert.
The eastern Arizona town of Willcox, 75 minutes from Sonoita and three hours from Phoenix, has seen several wineries spill over from further west, setting up tasting rooms in the historic downtown area. These wineries are young – no more than 12 years old – with many popping up along the rocky wonders of Chiricahua National Monument.
Keeling Schaefer Vineyards started nearly a decade ago in the shadows of the Chiricahua. Set in the 1917 Willcox Bank and Trust building, their tasting room retains many of the original features of the old bank, including the tin ceiling. They offer a selection of varieties including dry RhÃ´ne-style wines and Syrah.
Coronado Vineyards is the area’s most established winery, located just outside downtown Willcox in the Coronado National Forest. It operates a tasting room and tapas lounge in a former country club, and has picked up a collection of awards for its renowned Arizona wines.
Zarpara Vineyard is hidden away in the Willcox Bench region, tucked under the Doz Cabezas Mountains in Cochise County. The area offers some of the best conditions for wine growing in the state, with 4,200 feet of elevation providing warm days and cool nights during the growing season. Because of this, they are able to grow a range of varietals including Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Sangiovese.
The smallest of the Arizona wine regions is found to the north of Phoenix, two hours drive away, with a mere five wineries dotting the banks of the Verde River and Oak Creek. Though the state’s southern wines are most reputable, the wines of the Verde Valley Wine Trail are growing in prominence each year.
Page Springs Cellars specialises in Rhone-centric reds from talented winemaker and ecologist Eric Glomski. The award-winning 2010 El Serrano, Colibri Vineyards Mourvedre and La Flor Rosa vintages are best enjoyed in the vineyard’s picturesque setting.
Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery specialises in powerful red wines from their 10-acre estate. Located on the slopes of a volcanic mountain, Javelina Leap looks out over the lush greenbelt of Oak Creek, minutes outside the town of Sedona. Handcrafted in small batches by owners Rod and Cynthia Snapp, single varietal Arizona wine is the speciality here.
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Have you explored Arizona wine country? Which of these vineyards did you most enjoy visiting? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Ben Winstanley