In Search of the Wild West: Why Arizona Wines Deserve Your Attention

In Search of the Wild West: Why Arizona Wines Deserve Your Attention

It was a Thursday evening when I flew into Tucson. The spring is always the best time, and I walked out of the airport to a breezy day, dry desert air warm in my lungs. I was in town for the 4th Annual Southeast Arizona Wine Growers Music Festival, my first go at tasting any desert wines (not to be confused with dessert wines). It had been a long time since my college days in that dusty old city (I must say, they have done up the downtown quite nicely), and it felt good to be back. I can’t help myself from reveling in memories from those days of glory- sitting back on the grassy knolls next to the student union, pool parties that seemed to go all day and continue on into the night, cheap beer and bright tank tops. What a time.

But anyway, wine.

Over 60 vineyards and wineries now call Arizona home. With the state’s rich prehistory, the soils contain a wealth of mineral deposits, left overs from broken-down mountains and fossilized remnants of the past. These deposits infuse into the vines and help define the grapes, giving Arizona wines a unique identity. People have been stateMaptalking about the arid climate & its volcanic terroir, and I’ve been curious about its wines for a while now.

One winery in particular was on my radar- Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards, the project of winemaker Maynard James Keenan. He’s been taking strides and making headlines as an Arizona vigneron, and I’ve been following the story with keen interest. It was about time I got to know the wines.

Okay, Tucson isn’t exactly the ideal spot for a vineyard (though it’s not unheard of). The wide valley doesn’t provide much morning or afternoon shade from the blasting summer sun. You want great hikes and pool parties, that’s your spot. I’ll bake in that heat any day.

No, the ideal climates lie across the northern and southern regions of the state, where the harsh desert floors give way to rolling hills and craggy peaks. It’s here that you can find the thriving wine industry of the Wild West. Three high-desert areas have been identified as growing regions, and one of them is recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA).

North of Phoenix, the Arizona Scenic Verde Canyon RailroadVerde Valley sits next to beautiful Sedona. The vines bask on slopes amongst the red rocks and desert pines. To the south & southeast of Tucson, waves of grassland roll through lush foothillsSonoita-Valley. Willcox, in the southeast, boasts Arizona’s highest grape production. Sonoita, to the south, is the first area that Arizona can proudly call an AVA. After tasting through their wines from each of these areas, I see that Arizona is a region to be reckoned with. 

The festival was being held at Kief-Joshua Vineyards, in the Sonoita area, south of Tucson. We arrived at the Kief-Joshua estate on Sunday for the 2nd day of the event. It took us about an hour to drive to Elgin from Tucson, a nice cruise, full of scenery. Behind the big adobe house, which serves as Kief-Joshua’s tasting room, the main event was being held on the grounds next to the vineyard.20150419_141408

In total, there were 21 wineries presenting their bottles, each under their own tent, and a warm, breezy day accompanying. A 70’s jam band set the mood with some mellow grooves, and we were ready to taste.20150419_131234

The event ticket came with a free commemorative glass and 10 tastings of your choice. Working my magic, I managed to come by a few more ;). In total, I think I tasted 20 different labels. Where some fell short, others stood out with stellar performances. Being that I am a space geek, and Arizona is especially known for its night skies, I think stars are the most appropriate grading symbols.

My rating system is simple, from 1/2 to 3 stars based on bouquet, flavor profile, finish and price relative to quality. I don’t claim to be an expert, these are my judgments based on my own pallet. I’d like to remind everyone that wine ratings are completely relative to the individual taster, and what I, or Robert Parker or anyone says, the wine could taste exactly as the reviewer says, or it might leave a completely opposite impression on you. No review should sway or deter you from trying any one wine. In the spirit of my professor from SSU, Tim Hanni MW, it all comes down to whether or not YOU enjoy it.

I’ll finish my babble before going into the reviews. Arizona is a place of rare and unique beauty. You could drive all over the state and wind up in completely different environments (check out the Sky Islands of Tucson). It quickly grew on me during my tenure at the UofA, and it’s a place I’ll continually return to. Now I have a whole other reason to go. The caliber of wines that they can produce rightly puts them on the map as a budding wine region. Be you a geek, a connoisseur, a casual drinker or a beginner, Arizona wines deserves your attention. BTFD.

Winery: Cellar 433, Dribble Creek line
Ode to Spring
20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Barbera
20% Zinfandel, 10% Petite Sirah
Rating: 2.5 Stars

20150419_121228Dribble Creek, a child of Cellar 433, did a great job with this blend, I was thoroughly impressed. A medium-bodied red that smelt of black currants & tobacco, and peppery flavors with red fruits. A steal at $18. This label has been discontinued, so if you’re gonna get it, get it now.

Winery: Alcantara
50% Merlot 50% Cabernet Sauvignon
Rating: 1 Star

Not every wine was going to wow. The Bordeaux-blend from Alcantara had an alluring label, but was not very pleasant in the nose. Overall it fell short for me. I wouldn’t go back for seconds, and at $39 a bottle, fuhgeddaboudit.

Winery: Lightning Ridge
Rating: 1.5 Stars

20150419_122517One grape I had hoped to find was the Italian Montepulciano, a native of the Marche and  other central regions (not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is actually Sangiovese). A cousin of mine owns a small vineyard in southwest New Mexico, and I was curious to see how the robust varietal fairs in the desert. I’ll have to keep exploring, Lightning Ridge‘s did not deliver the deep, voluptuous body and soft tannin that I look for in the grape. I only did get to taste the one, so I’m still hopeful in finding a winner. Still, not a bad wine. Black cherries on the nose, and nice plum flavors on the pallet. For $28, it’s ok.

Winery: Coronado Vineyards
2012 Dry Riesling
Rating: 2 Stars

The first I tasted from Coronado Vineyards was their Dry Riesling. We usually hear about Rieslings coming from places like Germany and France, so of course I was curious. Surprisingly, it was really good. Just about what I look for in a white. Dry with a slight sweetness, very fresh and good for those days in the sun. At $16, you should not pass this one up.

2013 Malbec
Rating: 2 Stars

Coronado’s Riesling was so nice, so I was reeled back in for a 2nd taste. Their Malbec is another winner in my book. The arid climate brings out the rich flavors of the lush grape. Fruity but not jammy or too sweet. This is $20 I’d be happy to spend.

Winery: Callaghan Vineyards
2013 Grenache
Rating: 3 Stars

20150419_130607Callaghan‘s big red showed very well, the first 3-star I had at the event. While reviews of past vintages have labeled the wine as a “fruit-bomb”, I found the 2013 to be well-balanced, the fruitiness just right. It’s no surprise the Spanish-varietal has done well in Arizona. With $28 on the price tag, this wine is worth picking up.

Winery: Sonoita Vineyards
2012 Petite Sirah
Rating: 2 Stars

I wasn’t sure what to expect from an AZ-grown Petite, though it does seem to be grown in almost any climate. This bottle from Sonoita Vineyards sure put away any doubts. Inky with a bit of spice, good balance of the alcohol with the fullness of the body. For $35, I can say you won’t be disappointed.

Winery: Zarpara Vineyards
2012 Sangiovese
80% Sangiovese 15% Cabernet Sauvignon 5% Monastrell
Rating: 3 Stars

20150419_132101There were a few Sangiovese blends at the event; Zarpara‘s took the gold medal for me. The winery’s 1st release of the label, it debuted only this year. I had asked the winemakers which I should taste if only one. They picked out the Sangiovese with pride, and rightly so. Red currants and strawberries, this fruity red is a definite go-to for $20.

Winery: Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards 
2013 The Diddler
54% Chenin Blanc 26% Viognier 20% Malvasia Bianca
Rating: 2 Stars

A golden-yellow emits from the first wine from Caduceus & Merkin. The ’13 Diddler, quite a different blend from the 2012, was a gritty sweet that sits well on the palate and finishes nicely with tones of melon. I get the impression from the name that the winemaker loves to diddle his blend from vintage to vintage. This is going to be an exciting wine to keep an eye on each year.

2012 Primer Paso
60% Syrah 33% Petite Sirah 7% Malvasia Bianca
Rating: 2.5 Stars

Primer Paso 2012Syrah & and its cousin Petite seem to be thriving in the desert, as shown again by this Caduceus blend. The boldness from both varietals is beautifully accompanied by the Mediterranean white, Malvasia. This rounded red has a flowery aroma with warm spice and leather flavors. $48 well-spent.

2012 Le Cortigiane Oneste
50% Merlot 50% Barbera
Rating: 2 Stars

A child of 2 worlds, Caduceus captures both the French and Italian profiles with this medium red. The vines are grown in nearby Luna County, New Mexico, another thriving region with a history of winegrowing that many are not aware of. The fruity bouquet and crisp acidity are owed to the rich Italian Barbera, while the French Merlot brings in a dry complexity. Black cherries and plum, with a nice lingering finish.

2012 Sancha
97% Tempranillo 3% Malbec
Rating:3 Stars

20150419_135557As soon as I heard what was next from Calvin Arnold of Caduceus (who provided great conversation), my mouth started watering immediately. Tempranillo was my epiphany wine, an experience I had while studying abroad in Barcelona, but that’s another story. It was everything I hoped it would be- juicy with beautiful minerality that gave it a unique character, nicely oaked and a finish that left me wanting more. The highest priced bottle of the event, and rightly so, $60.

Winery: Sand-Reckoner
100% Syrah
Rating: 2.5 Stars

My final ticket went to Sand Reckoner. The name was what reeled me in, and rightly so. I asked the same thing I had of Zarpara, “I have one taste, which wine speaks the best to your name?” The Syrah again delivered. Spicy and full flavored, cinnamon with oaky creams. This was the right wine to finish the day on. For $45, it holds its own.

Winery: Kief-Joshua
Sauvignon Blanc
Rating: —
Rating: —

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