(July 13 - 21, 2011) Ironically, the most difficult issue with winegrowing in Arizona is frost. Most people find this surprising because Arizona is known for very hot temperatures, but since most of the vineyards are located in the high desert at 4200 to 5200 feet in elevation, it can get quite cold at certain times of the year. In years where the frost arrives during bud break, a large percentage of the crop can be at risk.
Arizona now boasts 45 wineries, and though I had visited wineries in the Sonorita region south of Tucson several years ago, imagine my delight when I arrived in Sedona this week (one of the most beautiful places on earth) and discovered they have 8 wineries within a 30 mile radius of the town. Sedona is already very magical with magnificent red rock formations, numerous hiking trails, great restaurants, and a mystical aura due to its vortexes. Now with the presence of small family wineries producing some very high quality wines, Sedona, located two hours north of Phoenix, is even more alluring.
Three Main Wine Growing Regions in Arizona
In addition to the Sedona region (also referred to as the Verde Valley area), there are two other grape growing areas. The oldest is the Sonorita/Elgin region south of Tucson. It has the largest number of wineries and also boasts the only AVA in Arizona at this time (Sonorita AVA). The third region is southeast of Tucson near Wilcox in Cochise County. Both of these more southern regions have larger vineyard acreage than Sedona area wineries, which often purchase the southern grapes to supplement their smaller vineyard production.
Major Grape Varietals in Arizona – A Focus on Reds
Like many newer US wine regions, it appears that Arizona is currently experimenting with many types of grape varietals. I tasted everything from nebiollo to gewürztraminer, but the wines that I preferred (and that also seem to be gaining high scores from the critics) were their reds.
I came away very impressed with several 100% grenache wines, as well as GSM’s (grenache, syrah, mouvedre) from all 3 regions. It is logical that with daytime temperature soaring into the 90’s and low 100’s that they would produce such excellent warm climate varietals. Fortunately the temperature in the high desert drops dramatically at night, so the grapes are able to preserve their flavors and acid.
Red Italian grape varietals also appear to be doing well here – especially in the Sedona area. I tasted some very nice barbera, sangiovese, and a blush nebiollo. At the same time, there were also some very decent merlots, cabernet sauvignons, blends of such, and even zinfandel.
In terms of whites, I tasted several chardonnays, but found them to have bitter finishes. Two white varietals which appear to do well here are viognier and malvasia bianca.
Favorite Arizona Wines on This Trip & Kudos to Arizona Wine Tourism
Though I must admit that I spent more time hiking in Sedona than I did tasting wine, I did manage to visit some wineries and wine-tasting rooms. One thing that very much impressed me was Arizona’s focus on wine tourism. There were several generic wine tasting businesses in Sedona and one in Cottonwood that allowed you to taste a wide variety of Arizona wines. In addition, every place I turned I found an Arizona wine brochure, map, or magazine, and the wine signage along the roads was great.
Altogether I tried 14 different wines and came away with six favorites:
2009 Dos Cabezas El Norte from Cochise County ($40) – A GSM (23% grenache, 42% syrah, and 35% mouvedre) with a bright berry nose and palate, complex spices and long finish.
2009 Page Spring Cellars from Sedona area ($40) – blend of 6 red varietals. Dark red fruit, cloves, earthy notes, complex with good acid and long finish. Similar in style and taste to a medium-bodied Super Tuscan
2010 Caduceus Cellars Dos Ladrones from Sedona area ($25) a delightful blend of malvasia bianca and chardonnay with floral nose, peach notes, good texture on palate and medium-high acid. Very refreshing.
2010 Caduceus Cellars Lei Li Rose from Sedona area ($40) –a rather unusual, though very delightful, rose of nebiollo with fragrant cherry nose, dry fruit palate, chalky tannins and a nice high acid finish.
2008 Oak Creek Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) – classic jammy zin nose, medium-bodied ripe berry fruit with spice and pepper. Made in a more elegant style with balanced alcohol and medium plus acid.
Arizona Vineyards and Terrior
I was able to visit two wineries in the Sedona area and see the vineyards. The soil is primarily volcanic. One vineyard was on level land with 8 x 12 spacing and VSP trellis. The other was on a steep rocky terrace. They both had irrigation, deer fencing, and bird netting. Since I hadn’t made advance appointments, I couldn’t find anyone in the tasting rooms who could describe rootstocks, clones, canopy management, disease, pests, etc.
At a tasting room in Sedona that featured wines from around Arizona, the pourer challenged me to identify the “terrior of the state.” One feature I found in all the wines I tasted was a ripe fruity nose – no bashful wines here. With the wines from the southern regions of Cochise County and Sonorita, I found a higher alcohol level with medium acid, and an intriguing note of dark bitter chocolate and sage. The Sedona region wines seemed to have more moderate alcohol and higher acid, but I couldn’t find any distinctive and replicating notes in the ones I tasted. Guess, I just need to go back for another visit and try more wines.
For more information on Arizona wineries, see