I was recently invited to a tasting of wines from Arizona winery Aridus Wine Company at the Napa Valley Wine Institute. Prior to the tasting, my knowledge of Aridus’ wines in particular, or Arizona wine in general, wouldn’t fill a wine glass . . . or even a shot glass. I was intrigued to find out more about the varietals being planted in Arizona, the soil, the climate, the overall terroir. After the tasting, there were several wines that I really enjoyed and, overall, I havedd a better sense for what Aridus is trying to do, where they are headed, and how Arizona wines will fit into the larger wine universe.
It’s easy to think of Napa as the center of the universe for American wine; or even as the entire universe. This is especially true when you live in Napa Valley as we have for nearly the past five years. Certainly, there’s no denying Napa Valley’s place in the national or international wine universe. Its history. Those Napa Cabs. The Valley floor. How about those mountains – Veeder, Howell, Spring? Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Dozens of 100-point ratings dotting the landscape.
When you think about it, though, you realize how relatively recent the “Big Bang” was that created the Napa Valley universe. Let’s go back to 1976 when a seemingly innocuous wine tasting in Paris – now-called “Judgement of Paris” – changed Napa’s future forever. Just over 40 years later, the U.S. wine map is much more than just Napa Valley. Sonoma. Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. Lodi. Emerging regions such as Lake County, Amador, El Dorado, Clarksburg, Solano. Washington and Oregon of course.
So why not Arizona? One reason “why not” in my head as I prepared for the tasting was “it’s a freaking desert!” Hot hot hot, right? That didn’t sound like any sort of appropriate terroir for premium wine grapes to grow in. As it turns out, there are regions in Arizona that are not 120 degrees and that have the perfect soil for growing grapes. Here are a few things that I learned at the Aridus tasting:
- There are two American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in Arizona – Sonoita, which is in the southeast part of the state, south of Tucson, and Willcox AVA (formed in 2016) just off Highway 10.
- There is a third region of vineyards, Verde Valley, that sits north of Phoenix; this area is not an AVA but does have an application for AVA status pending with the TTB.
- We all know that warm days and cool nights are ideal conditions for growing grapes that turn into quality wines. When I think of Arizona, scorching hot days and just-barely-less-than-scorching nights come to mind. Within the Willcox AVA, vineyards are planted above 4,000 feet of elevation, an altitude at which cooler nights prevail. Day-time temperatures reach the low- to mid-90’s but night time temperatures drop into the high-50’s to mid-60’s. In the Sonoita AVA, vineyards are planted as high as 5,000 feet and are among the highest vineyard locations in the United States.
- Soil is an important part of terroir, as we all know. Again, what comes to mind with Arizona is desert sand. Wrong again. In the Willcox AVA, the soil is alluvial loam comprised of equal parts sand, silt, and clay. You know where you would find alluvial soil comprised of these elements? Napa Valley.
- There are over 100 varietals planted in Arizona vineyards at last count. Long-term, this is not a sustainable approach to viticulture. Without question, all of these varietals will not be ideal for the climate and soil of Arizona. There will be several years of trial and error as viticulturists experiment with varietals to determine what thrives and what simply isn’t right for the terroir. This approach is very similar to what we have seen in other emerging wine regions where varietal suitability is tested broadly. For us, Lodi comes immediately to mind: there are over 100 varietals planted there and there have been some delightful surprises that have emerged in terms of grape suitability. Bokisch Vineyards grows 100% Spanish varietals – and makes exceptional wines from those grapes. Acquiesce Winery only makes elegant and beautiful white wines from Rhone varietals. Markus Wine Company makes some top-notch wines that stretch past Lodi’s reputation as a Zinfandel region.
Okay, so we know a little bit more about Arizona, its AVA’s, vineayrds and terroir. What about the wine? At our Aridus Wine Company tasting, we were able to experience __ different wines, each presetned by Aridus’ winemaker ____.