Callaghan Vineyards – Elgin, Arizona

Kent Callaghan listens more than he talks. He’s reserved and unassuming. He’s had his hands in the dirt of his Elgin vineyard since at least 1990. I’m guessing he has learned something about that vineyard every day since. It’s reflected in the wine he makes.

Kent Callaghan
We visited Callaghan Vineyards in early August when we spent a few days wine tasting in the Sonoita/Elgin area of southern Arizona. The Sonoita AVA was designated in 1985, it’s the only one in the state, and is located about an hour south of Tucson.

Grasslands in Sonoita AVAIt’s high dessert, siting at an elevation of about 4500 – 5000 ft and surrounded by the Santa Rita, Huachuca and Whetstone Mountains. This lovely area looks like prairie. These lush grasslands are home to large cattle ranches. It’s a bit hilly in areas and is dotted with vineyards.


Welcome to Elgin


Kent has a long family history in southern Arizona, going back three generations. The vineyard operation grew out of an interest his parents developed in winemaking as a result of their exposure to wine regions in British Columbia and Napa Valley. Kent planted the vineyard in Elgin with his parents in 1990. Since then, it has been a constant learning process.



Callaghan vineyard viewBecause this wine region is relatively young, the first wineries established only in the 1970s, winemakers are still determining what does best in the Sonoita AVA. Kent has planted what he thought would do best in his vineyard location, but if it doesn’t work — it’s gone. Syrah has been ripped out because it was a poor producer. Zinfandel has been replaced with Graciano. Petit Verdot does well consistently. Same for Cabernet Franc, and it’s a good blender. Callaghan was one of the first to plant Mourvedre, which he feels is particularly well-suited to Sonoita. And Montepulciano has been a success as well.

Marsanne, Roussanne, Falanghina and Fiano are white varieties he favors. He is not a fan of Chardonnay or Viognier for Sonoita. Viognier buds early, which can be a problem with frost, and he feels it can develop too much acid. It’s an exciting list of grape varieties, not the usual suspects.

Callaghan vines“Every vintage is an adventure”, was Kent’s reply when we asked him about his style of winemaking. Making a consistent style year-to-year is difficult given the extreme weather of southern Arizona. Callaghan’s vineyards were severely damaged in 2010 and again in 2011. A spring frost can be devastating. Monsoon rains beginning in July/August can drop an enormous amount of rain in a short period of time. The night before our visit, the winery received an inch of rain. Hail has been a problem during veraison every year since 2008. Some years have brought as many as three hail storms. It can damage or destroy an entire crop.

The “learn and adapt” strategy applies to the choice of wood for aging and the type of bottle closure too. Kent began using American oak, then in 1996 tired of the flavors (though he admits it produces wines that age very nicely). He prefers Hungarian oak and European oak in general (including Polish) for the “baking spice” flavors it contributes to the wine. He’s experimenting with cooperages as well (Doreau and Bouchard).

Callaghan vineyard bldg

You will not find a cork closure on any of Callaghan’s wines (sadly, you cannot PullThatCork). Kent switched from corks with the 2004 vintage. “Synthetic corks are the worst, never again”, Kent said with disgust. He found the agglomerate corks “Ok”, but has since decided screw-top closures are the best choice. He seems set on that.

With the exception of his Red Dessert Wine, which is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, you will not find a varietal wine among Callaghan’s current releases (though he has produced both a Tempranillo and a Syrah from California fruit, and Zinfandel). He believes blended wines produce a wine with more complex flavors. Anyway, producing blends gives him more flexibility in dealing with what the weather throws at him year-to-year.

When we last tasted at Callaghan Vineyards in 2011, we particularly enjoyed the 2008 Back Lot. It was a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and  Zinfandel. The current release, 2010 Back Lot is 50% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 25% Tempranillo. Two completely different blends, both very good.

We were favorably impressed by Callaghan’s wines, as we have been in the past. Here are a few notes on our favorites.

2010 Callaghan Vineyards Ann’s $22. This white blend of 45% Grenache Blanc, 35% Verdelho and 20% Symphony is made from fruit sourced from Dragoon Mountain (Willcox). Callaghan’s own fruit was almost completely lost to hail. The wine went through full malolactic fermentation. It is round in the mouth with floral scents and flavors along with pears. A mouthful of flavor with a clean finish.

2009 Callaghan Vineyards Claire’s $32. It’s a blend of 55% Mourvedre and 45% Grenache. Dark fruit scents and flavors with great complexity. The flavors in this wine have blended together nicely to produce a flavorful, elegant wine. By comparison we tasted the 2011 Claire’s which is rich, ripe and tannic. A very different style. I’m looking forward to re-tasting it in a few years, if we can keep our hands off the bottle that long.

2009 Padres $32. This blend of 60% Tempranillo, 30% Grenache and 10% Syrah has abundant dark, ripe fruit scents and flavors with great tannin structure. Flavorful, but well-behaved.

Kent also is consulting winemaker for other wineries in the area. He has more experience growing grapes and making wine than almost anyone in the area, and finds the experience of combining his winemaking ideas with someone else’s fruit to be and interesting and enjoyable endeavor. Can’t imagine how he finds the time.

Callaghan winesThis was our second visit to Callaghan Vineyards. We were as impressed with the current release wines as we have been with his prior wines. Callaghan Vineyards’ wines have been winning awards for years. They have been served at the White House. There is nothing fancy or pretentious about the tasting experience at Callaghan Vineyards, the wines are just seriously good. I can’t imagine tasting wine in the Sonoita/Elgin area and not stopping to taste Kent’s wines.

Here’s to a successful finish to the 2013 harvest.


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