Wines of Southern Arizona — One More Taste

It’s no secret we are fans of the wines being made in Southern Arizona, both from the Sonoita AVA and Cochise County. We spent some time there last summer and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. We are of course, longing to return.

In lieu of a return trip, we broke out a selection of wines we purchased while we were there, and Pete presented them at a recent Thursday Night tasting at Fine Wines of Stockton. One of the fun aspects of combining travel and wine is being able to purchase wines and then share the wines you collect along the way with fellow wine lovers when you return home.

There are two wine growing regions in Southern Arizona. The Willcox area in Cochise County is located southeast of Tucson and is framed by the Chiricahua Mountains to the east and the Dragoon Mountains to the west. Elevations range from nearly 5000 feet to about 4200 feet above sea level. Soils are a combination of volcanic and sandy loam with areas of limestone beneath.

Sonoita, also south of Tucson and to the west of the Willcox area, is the only AVA designated in Arizona. It too is located at nearly 5000 feet, and surrounded by the Santa Rita, Whetstone, Huachuca Mountains and the Canelo Hills.

The Sonoita/Elgin area is home to the first vineyards and wineries established in the state. It all started with a soil scientist named Dr. Gordon Dutt who determined in the early 1970s that soil conditions for grape growing were ideal.

Both areas are subject to cold winters, which can include a dusting of snow. Springtime is always a gamble in terms of frost and summer can bring hail. Every vintage is completely unique with the vineyards subject to extremely unpredictable weather.

To a degree, winemakers are still experimenting to see what grows best where. Rhône and Italian varieties are widely planted, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Here’s what we tasted.

2012 Lawrence Dunham Sky Island Viognier2012 Lawrence Dunham Vineyards Sky Island Viogniersubtle floral aromas and flavors with both tending more toward minerality and citrus. This wine is fresh, crisp and refreshing. It’s all Viognier, all stainless steel and no malolactic fermentation. This is a good food wine and one that will be a pleasure to enjoy as the weather warms up. ABV 13.8%.

Lawrence Dunham Vineyards is located in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains in Cochise County at 4896’. Summer days are warm and the nights are cool. The porous soil is volcanic, a result of the Turkey Creek Volcanic eruption 27 million years ago.

The 2012 vintage was very productive for LDV, they went from a 500 case production to 1800 cases, and it was the first year all of their production was from estate fruit. Current plantings include Petite Sirah, Grenache, Syrah and Viognier.

2012 Dos Cabezas Pink2012 Dos Cabezas Pinkstrawberries and limes combine in the aromas and flavors to produce a bright, clean wine. It’s dry, not too fruity and has great acidity. This drinks well on its own and is a great companion with lunch, we know this from experience! ABV 14%.

Dos Cabezas WineWorks has vineyard in both Willcox area and Sonoita/Elgin. This wine is a blend of 85% Grenache 15% Monastrell (Mourvèdre) from blocks in the Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County specifically dedicated to the production of this Rosé. It is good every year and we always look for it on restaurant menus when we visit Scottsdale in the summer.

2008 Sonoita Vineyards Sangiovese2008 Sonoita Vineyards Sangiovese transparent garnet color in the glass (just as I would expect from Sangiovese) with aromas and flavors of dried cherries, spice and sweet plums. It is a fairly light-bodied wine with smooth tannins.

Dr. Gordon Dutt planted his own vineyard in 1979 and opened Sonoita Vineyards in 1983. Both were firsts in southern Arizona. Dr. Dutt’s granddaughter, Lori Reynolds, is the current winemaker having taken over the responsibility in 2013. The winery is in a period of transition, and we are looking forward to a new generation of wines from Sonoita Vineyards.

2011 Pillsbury WildChild Red2011 Pillsbury Wine Company WildChild Redlight garnet in the glass with flavors and scents of tart cherries, leather, earth and spice in the background. This wine has plenty of flavor along with soft tannins, good acidity and medium body. This wine is so drinkable and so versatile, add food — or not. ABV 14.8%.

The Pillsbury Wine Company vineyards, planted in 2000, are located in the Kansas Settlement area of Willcox. About 20 acres of primarily Rhône varieties are planted in the sandy loam soil.

This vintage WildChild Red is a blend of Merlot, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre and Shiraz. The blend may vary, the current release is Sangiovese and Merlot only, but the wine is always delicious. The Roan Red, another of their red blends, is another of our favorites.

2011 Callaghan Vineyards Claire's2011 Callaghan Vineyards Claire’sdark ruby in the glass with aromas of sweet, dark fruit with vegetal notes tucked into the background. Rich, dark fruit flavors and spices along with moderate tannins and juicy acidity. ABV 13.8%.

A blend of 70% Mourvèdre 15% Grenache 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, from the very difficult 2011 vintage. A hard freeze on May 1 eliminated 85% of the crop, leaving yields for the year at one-third ton per acre. About 35% whole cluster fermentation, was followed by aging in new French oak for 4 months, then in neutral barrels for 7 months.

2009 Callaghan Vineyards Claire's2009 Callaghan Vineyards Claire’searthy, dark fruit flavors of ripe plums and ripe sweet cherries with plenty of tannins. Flavors are riper and sweeter in this vintage along with more alcohol. ABV 15.9%.

The 2009 growing season was characterized by mild temperatures and very little rainfall, only 3”, producing a moderate crop of 1.5 tons per acre. The 2009 blend of 55% Mourvèdre and 45% Granache was aged sur lie for 23 months in neutral oak.

Kent Callaghan is one of the most experienced winemakers in the area. He and his parents planted the original vineyard in 1990. He has continued to learn and experiment with winemaking techniques and grape varieties over the years. And then there is the extreme weather, his entire 2010 crop was damaged by hail in August of that year.

Pete chose these two Callaghan Vineyards wines to demonstrate the different styles capable of being produced from vintage to vintage. Every year is different in terms of weather, the blends the winemaker chooses and the vinification techniques chosen.

The southern Arizona wine region is absolutely worth exploring. The Willcox area has at least 10 tasting rooms and the Sonoita/Elgin area about 14. Both areas are beautiful. Rolling hills, mountains and grasslands are accented with spectacular cloud formations. There is no end to the hiking and birding available and the temperatures are much cooler than the central portion of Arizona.

Go for the wine, but be prepared to fall in love with the scenery.


PS ~ here are links to our southern Arizona trip last August. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion. Enjoy!

Welcome to Willcox (includes a slideshow)
Willcox Wine Tasting
Lawrence Dunham Vineyards
Pillsbury Wine Company
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
Callaghan Vineyards

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