Tag Archives: Arizona

Willcox – Arizona’s Wild-West AVA

27 Jan

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Arizona has over 80 bonded wineries and is gaining fame for its earthy red Rhone varieties.  Willcox is the newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the state, and the town of Willcox is one of the most rustic western towns you are likely to run across.  Willcox has begun to blossom into a major wine tourism region, already growing nearly three quarters of all Arizona winegrapes.  During tastings at three of the leading local wineries, I ran into quite a few customers from around the country who had heard of Arizona’s winemaking progress and wanted to experience the state’s great wines for themselves.

Some experts say that the best Arizona wines do not come from Willcox – they instead point to wines made in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley, such as those from Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, made by wine expert and rock star Maynard James Keenan (frontman and founder of Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, and my son’s favorite musician).  Interestingly, many of the grapes used by Maynard’s wines actually come from the Willcox area.

Willcox boasts several of its own wineries that make award-winning wine which can hold its own against even some of the better wines of northern California.  The tasting rooms I visited all fall into this category, and are summarized below with my assessment of some of their offerings.

Keeling Schaefer Vineyards.  At 5000’ elevation, these vineyards enjoy cool nights that help maintain acidity even as the hot Arizona sun fully ripens the grapes.  Having honed their craft here for almost 20 years, Keeling Schaefer wines have been written up in the Wall Street Journal and have earned high scores from the big-name wine raters.

  1. 2016 Puzzle Vine PicPoul Blanc. Light, vibrantly refreshing, with apple and citrus fruit on the palate.  At less than 13% alcohol and substantial acidity this is a great summer refresher, and at $12 per bottle it is a real bargain.  8.5 out of 10 points.
  2. 2013 Partners Rhone Blend. This GSM (59% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 11% Mourvedre) is as nuanced and balanced as offerings from the southern Rhone Valley, but with the riper fruit-forward taste of the new world.  A pale clear garnet in the glass with complex fruit aromatics.  A sip reveals tons of dark fruit, fig and spice backed by soft tannins.  $18, 9/10.  I bought a bottle of this one.
  3. 2014 Keeling Brothers Shiraz. Deep ruby, medium-full body.  Like their lower price-point Syrah, this is a lush wine with dark berry and cocoa, but in this reserve offering the fruit is slightly overpowered by the American Oak in which it was aged.  $34, 7.5/10

Aridus Wine Company. One of the largest winemaking facilities in the state, Aridus brings in grapes from high-quality vineyards from Arizona, New Mexico and California.

  1. 2015 Aridus Tempranillo. Light, clear ruby, decidedly less opaque than a Spanish Tempranillo, but the taste is classic Rioja.  Medium-bodied with raspberry and tart cherry, with a touch of spice and cocoa.  $39.90, 8/10
  2. 2015 Aridus Malbec. Medium ruby, wonderful bouquet of red fruit and a touch of leather.  Smoooooth fruit and spice on the palate.  $36.75, 9/10

Carlson Creek Vineyards. I am impressed with a winery that uses estate grapes (grapes grown on vineyards which are on the winery’s property) rather than searching out grapes from other regions.  Every one of the Carlson Creek wines I sampled was made from Arizona grapes, with the vast majority coming from the Carlson property vineyards.  In fact, Carlson sells many grapes to other Arizona wineries as well.  They understand Arizona climate and terroir, and it shows.

  1. 2012 Chenin Blanc. First of all, kudos to Carlson Creek for holding on to this beautiful white until it was so nicely aged.  I selected this wine to sample rather than the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc because some of the best whites I have had are Chenin Blanc’s from Vouvray in the Loire Valley.  This is a well-crafted warm-climate high-alcohol (14.8%) version of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.  A surprisingly refreshing acidity with a full palate of stone fruit and citrus and a long honey-tinged finish.  8.5/10
  2. 2012 Sangiovese. This one was awarded a Bronze Medal in San Francisco last year.  A light ruby with amber-tinged meniscus, this light-bodied Chianti Riserva style red shows lots of cherry and red berry flavors with a hint of spice and soft, smooth tannins.  $24, 9/10
  3. 2013 Rule of Three. A typical southern-Rhone style GSM (40% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 30% Mouvredre), done superbly well.  An immediate aromatic rush of plum and dark berry with the same on the palate.  What is surprising is the loooong finish on this one.  At $29, this oak-aged blend is a bargain.  9/10.
  4. 2014 Malbec. A dense ruby – more opaque than any of the other offerings. Moderate alcohol (13.5%) is perfectly balanced with loads of blackberry and plum with drifting smoky tobacco through the mid-palate. I liked this better than many Argentinian offerings.  $40, 9.5/10
  5. 2014 Syrah. Medium ruby in the glass, with beautiful dark berry on the nose and the palate.  This is a LUSH wine.  The fruit is ripe and packs every sip, with notes of leather and a backbone of round tannins.  $32, 9/10
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The Fine Wines of Tombstone

2 Jan

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Having spent the past 2 weeks in tasting rooms from Napa to Santa Barbara to Temecula to the Sonoita Arizona AVA, I was not expecting to encounter wines of commensurate quality and character in Tombstone…  And then I found Silver Strike Winery!

In the heart of historic Tombstone, Silver Strike is just steps away from the famous OK Corral and maintains an old-west feel and a comfortable ambiance.  And the wine is (really!) outstanding.   The varietals and blends here are mostly made from grapes grown in America’s newest Viticulture Area – the Willcox AVA, which was just certified in October 2016.  As in the Sonoita AVA about 50 miles to the west, the Willcox vineyards produce excellent Mediterranean grape varieties.  Like Sonoita, the vineyards are quite southerly in latitude, but at almost a mile high in elevation they offer a combination of warm, sunny days and very cool nights.  In addition, the arid climate stresses the vines which helps bring about more intensive flavors in the grapes.

Owners and winemakers Jann and Hank Bengel take great pride in their wine making, using biodynamically grown grapes and all natural wine-making processes, with NO added sulfites.  The resulting wines are complex, smooth and balanced.  I would love to see their Cab or Zin-Syrah blend sent in to Robert Parker or Wine Spectator; I bet they would score over 90 points.  Assistant Winemaker Brittany was manning the Tasting Room when I visited, and she was a wealth of knowledge regarding the viticulture and oenology behind the wines.  She finished the tasting session by offering their deep, rich 5 year old Syrah based Port, which is fortified with an Italian brandy and worth every penny of the $100 per bottle cost.  Other wines that stood out:

  • 2013 Big Bore. This Sangiovese is light in body and color, and more complex than many young Sangiovese varietal wines.  Aroma and flavor notes of strawberry and sour cherry, with a touch of pepper on the back pallet.  8.5/10
  • 2013 Deep Core Cab. This was the first wine that really surprised me.  The fresh burst of cassis and dark plum is beautifully balanced with round tannins and low acidity.  Delicious on its own but would pair very well with roast meats.  9/10
  • 2013 Tempest. A Tempranillo in the Rioja style.  Aged in raw French Oak with surprising complexity, there are clear notes of dark berries, plum and white pepper with a medium finish of soft tannins and leather.  9/10
  • Zinful Ways. 78% Zinfandel and 22% Petite Sirah.  This medium bodied ruby wine blew me away with its depth of flavor.  Berry jam on the nose, red and black berries and spice on the palate and a beautiful long finish. 9+

All in all, the Silver Strike tasting room and wines could proudly stand on their own in any winemaking region in California.

The Wines of Arizona’s Original AVA

31 Dec

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The popularity of wine in the United States has soared since 1976 when California wines won “the judgment of Paris”.   In this Paris blind tasting some of the best whites and reds of France were pitted against those feisty upstarts in California, and by large margins the U.S. won in both categories – Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay against Burgundy’s best and Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet Sauvignon against some of the best houses of Bordeaux.  Since that momentous (for the wine world) event, vineyards and wineries have proliferated across the United States, and now wine is made in every state in the union.

Of course, many of the wines from states other than California, Oregon, Washington and New York are touristy novelties rather than serious high quality wines: usually sweet and many times made from whatever fruits and berries are indigenous to the winery’s home state.  At one time, Arizona wines were considered by many to be novelty wines.  That all changed when much vaunted wine critic Robert Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate, awarded a 1993 red blend from Sonoita’s Callaghan Vineyards with 92 points – a high honor indeed.

Today, there are over 110 wineries in Arizona, and many have won awards and global recognition.  There are two AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) in Arizona: the Sonoita AVA,  established in 1984 and the origin of 74% of all Arizona grapes and, as of Sept 2016, the brand new Willcox AVA.  During my tour of the Sonoita area I sampled wines from four wineries and found that many of the wines, particularly reds, were outstanding.  Sonoita AVA’s latitude is significantly south of the best new- or old-world vineyards, but at almost 5000′ of elevation the nights here are cool and hang time (length of time before harvest) is longer than at most California vineyards.  This hang time and the warm summer days result in grapes of intense flavor.

Of note were the Rhone-based blends of Sonoita Vineyards and Italian varietals of Lightning Ridge Cellars.  Sonoita Vineyards was the first commercial winery in the region, and currently produces about 4000 cases per year from over 60 acres of vineyards.  Tasting room rep Mercé was knowledgeable and informative, and the room was cozy and inviting, with samples of olive oils and wonderful balsamics as well.  The wines:

  • 2013 Buddy D’s ZinGioVe.  A blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Zinfandel.   Light to medium body with red fruit on the palate, good acidity, and touches of pepper and tobacco.  9 out of 10
  • 2013 MeCaSah.  A fruit forward blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv and Syrah, with a light oaky finish.  Very smooth tannins.  8.5
  • 2013 Malbec.  Loads of black fruit with a touch of cigar box on the midpalate.  Delicious!  9
  • 2015 Mission.  Mission grapes were some of the first wine grapes in the new world, brought to us by, you guessed it, missionaries.  Most mission grape vineyards are now long gone, but Sonoita has brought this varietal back, producing a unique semi-sweet red with bright red fruit and cedar spice.  8.5 and very interesting!

Lightning Ridge Cellars was a real treat.  Owners Ann and Ron Roncone established the winery in 2005 and their love for, and dedication to, making fine wines is abundantly evident.  Ron served me some of the best Italian varietal wine I have had in our country.    They do one thing differently than most wineries I have visited:  they sufficiently age the wines before putting them on the tasting menu.  Tasting a red that has seen 3 to 4 years in oak barrels is a much smoother and more balanced experience than is found in most tasting room offerings.   Some highlights:

  • 2011 Dolcetto. This Italian varietal is little known outside of the Piemonte in Northwestern Italy.  Lightning Ridge’s offering is made with grapes sourced from Temecula and is lighter than Italian versions, with smooth tannins (thanks to five years of aging?) and low acidity.  Medium-bodied with plum on the nose and palate, with a light oaky finish.  8.5 out of 10.
  • 2013 Sangiovese.  The classic grape of Tuscany grows well in southern Arizona!  Aged 32 months in oak (50% new), with characteristic notes of sour cherry and dried rose petals.  Medium ruby, very smooth and eminently drinkable.  9.
  • 2012 Montepulciano.  A popular varietal in Tuscany that is rarely grown in the U.S., Sonoita Vineyards brings out the best of the Montepulciano grape.  Probably my favorite of 18 wines tasted so far in Arizona, this 100% estate grown varietal is deep purple with medium to full body and complexity.  Dark fruit, tobacco leaf and a light peppery finish, with a foundation of soft tannins and alcohol level of 15.3%.  A delicious 9.5.

All in all, my impressions of the wines of Sonoita compare quite favorably with those I sampled in Temecula California (described in my post last week) and Santa Barbara.  Next week, I’m off to Arizona’s brand new AVA of Willcox.  Cheers!

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