Tag Archives: AVA

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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