Quick. Off the top of your head, name five things that you associate with Arizona. I’ll go first:
The Grand Canyon
I said cactus already, right?
What’s not on that list? Wine.
Fun Fact: Every state in the US makes wine in some fashion or another, some better (some waaaaay better) than others. That said, California accounts for over 85% of all wine made in the US. That leaves roughly 15% for the other 49 states. And yes, Virginia, they make wine in Arizona (something like .02% of the nation’s output).
Grape growing in Arizona dates back to the 1600s when Spanish missionaries planted grapevines to make wine for sacramental use. It was probably wasn’t especially drinkable, but it was wine. By the time Prohibition reared its really-bad-idea head, Arizona grew more grapes than California. After Prohibition was a different story. From Prohibition until the 1980s, it was illegal to make wine in Arizona.
Growing grapes in Arizona is somewhat challenging. Arizona is a semi-arid desert, with extreme weather — searing hot temperatures in the summer, and less than 13 inches of rain annually. The hot, dry climate results in a growing season that’s often too short, preventing grapes from reaching optimum levels of phenolic ripeness, which basically means they have too much sugar and not enough acidity, which results in a lack of flavor and structure in the wines.
But what Arizona does have is a strong diurnal effect — huge swings in temperature from day to night. Daytime temperatures can top 100 degrees, but the nights are cool, in the mid 40s to 50s. And wine grapes love those temperature mood swings. Another mitigating solution to viticulture in Arizona is elevation. Most Arizona vineyards are planted in swaths of altitude between 3,500 and 5.500 feet above sea level. Syrah and Malbec have been particularly successful in Arizona, along with Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon.
There are three wine regions in Arizona: Sonoita-Elgin, Wilcox, and Verde Valley.
Sonoita-Elgin (south of Tuscon) is the oldest wine producing area, and one of two official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Arizona. Sonority-Elgin has some of the highest elevation vineyards in North America, at over 5,000 feet.
Verde Valley (north of Phoenix), is 714 square miles, and produces mostly Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Malvasia and a relatively unknown grape, Cabernet Pfeffer.
The Wilcox Region is relatively new, achieving AVA status in 2016. Wilcox produces the whole gamut of wine styles — reds, whites, and sweet wines. Syrah and Sangiovese are particularly adapted to the rich volcanic soil in the region, which, at altitudes of 4,300 to 4,500 feet closely resembles the wine growing areas of both the Rhone Valley in France and Mendoza, Argentina.
Aridus Wine Company, located in Wilcox, Arizona, was founded by Scott and Joan Dahmer in 2012. The winery takes its name from the Latin word for dry, arid. Built in a former apple warehouse, Aridus produces its own wine label, and operates concurrently as a custom crush facility. Several local vineyards make their wines at Aridus.
Incidentally, the winemaker at Aridus, Lisa Strid, interned at one of my all-time favorite Oregon wineries, Alexana Winery.
Aridus Rosé (88 points)
68% Mourvedre and 32% Grenache, sourced from Wilcox and Pearce, Arizona. Aged for 4 months in a combination of new and neutral wood. Deep salmon in color. Very clean yet complex, with flavors of strawberry, rhubarb, minerals, dust, chalk, and tobacco. Medium body, great acidity, well balanced. Finishes slightly off-dry. 13.3% ABV. Retail = $29.40.
Aridus 2016 Malvasia Bianca (85 points)
Malvasia Bianca is a member of the ancient Malvasia grape family. It can be made into dry or sweet wine, and has been commercially important in the Mediterranean region for over 2,000 years.
The grapes for this 100% Malvasia Bianca wine are sourced from New Mexico vineyards in Mimbres Valley. Aged in stainless steel for 8 months. Pale lemon in color with an intense floral nose, almost perfume-like. Notes of jasmine and chamomile develop into rich veins of banana and pineapple. Medium body, slightly effervescent with bracing, if slightly focus-pulling, acidity. 13.7% ABV. Retail = 36.75.
Aridus 2015 Malbec (87 points)
The grapes for this wine were sourced from Cochise County, Arizona. 99% Merlot and 1% Petite Sirah. Aged for 19 months in new French, new American and neutral oak.
Medium ruby in color. Medium minus body, with flavors of strawberry, tobacco, red currant, vanilla, and toast. Medium acid, nicely balanced. It’s definitely a lighter-styled Merlot, but super enjoyable. 13.8% ABV. Retail = $36.75.
Aridus 2014 Petite Sirah (89 points)
100% Petite Sirah, sourced from Cochise County, Arizona. Aged for 16 months in 60% neutral oak and 40% new French oak. Coming in at 14.2% ABV, this is no shrinking violet wine. Deep purple in color, almost inky. Black currant, blackberry tinged with vanilla and baking spices. Concentrated flavors, chewy, dense tannins. Lots to think about in this glass. Well done. 14.2% ABV. Retail = $39.90.
Here’s the bummer — Arizona wines aren’t especially available outside of the southwestern US. I rarely see them here in Virginia. But, they are definitely worth seeking out.