I was recently invited to a tasting of wines from Arizona winery Aridus Wine Company at the Napa Valley Wine Academy.
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 have 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 composed 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, vineyards and terroir. What about the wine? At our Aridus Wine Company tasting, we were able to experience 11 different wines, each presented by Aridus’ winemaker Lisa Strid.
Our tasting began with three white wines:
2017 Sauvignon Blanc – 92% Sauv Blanc and 8% Riesling. Grapes were sourced from Mimbres Valley (New Mexico) and Cochise County (Arizona). This wine was aged 7 months in stainless steel and about a quarter of the blend spent a couple of months in oak. I enjoyed the balance of this wine – lots of apple and citrus on the nose and palate with some lingering tropical fruits. Although fruit was abundantly present, this was a crisp wine with nice acidity and minerality. Only 12.0% alcohol.
2017 Aridus Field Blend – Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Viognier. This wine spent 8 months in stainless steel and is bone dry. This wine is citrus all the way, tart, crisp with a hint of spice. We are starting to see more wineries make white field blends and we applaud the effort and the results, especially in this case.
2016 Orange Muscat – 100% Muscat sourced from Mimbres Valley in New Mexico. Many wine makers produce a sweet dessert Orange Muscat wine – this is not that wine! At 1.3 grams per liter of sugar, this is a dry wine suitable for pairing with serious foods. I’m not going to lie, my palate is still wrapping its head around (I know, that’s a weird image) orange wines. As a wine geek, I’m intrigued by the process of skin-on fermentation and perhaps more exposure to orange wines will mature my appreciation.
Our tasting proceeded from orange to pink – the 2017 Tempranillo Rosé made from 100% Tempranillo grapes grown in the Willcox AVA. Only one barrel of this wine was produced, a sad note for me as this was one of my favorite wines of the entire tasting. As most wine geeks know, there are two ways of making a rosé wine. The first is “direct press” where the grapes are pressed are separated from the skins fairly quickly; this method typically produces a wine of lighter hue and body. The second method, which Aridus uses to produce this Tempranillo Rosé, is the saignee method: while red grapes are early in their fermentation, a small amount of juice is bled off. This approach results in a more concentrated red wine (less juice for the same amount of skin) and, thankfully for me, also results in a very complex rose. Strawberries and citrus dominated the aroma and palate to deliver a medium-bodied wine with a pleasantly long finish.
After the rosé we jumped into five red wines:
2015 Grenache, a blend of Grenache (80%), Syrah (15%), Malbec (5%), and less than 1% Mourvèdre and Petit Sirah. I loved the aromatics on this wine – super intense floral and red fruit on the nose. There was something about the wine that did not capture my heart . . . or my palate. To me, the wine was not as balanced as some of the others; perhaps I was comparing this blend to the single-varietal Grenache we have been enjoying from California and Spain. However, I am pretty sure my husband John would have enjoyed this wine.
2016 Mourvèdre – 100% Mourvedre from grapes sourced from Cochise County, Arizona. This wine has not yet been released so it was a special treat for us to get an advanced tasting on a wine that is still technically aging. This is a full-bodied wine with powerful aromatics, flavors of dark fruit and earth – definitely a wine to pair with food.
2016 Tempranillo – 100% Tempranillo from Cochise County grapes. Aged 17 months in a combination of American and French oak (73% new), this wine is built to age. Although it will likely stand up for many years, I thought it showed well even in its youth and was smooth with a nice finish and even tannins. It will be interesting to try this wine in 5-7 years and see how it has matured.
2016 Graciano – a delightful single-varietal wine from grapes grown in Cochise County. Typically, we see Graciano as a second or third grape in Rioja wines, but not often standing proudly on its own. If the Tempranillo Rose was my favorite wine of the tasting, this Graciano was likely my second favorite. Aged for 18 months in new American and French oak barrels, this wine was dark fruit all the way – black cherry, blackberry, stewed plums, complemented by pepper and spice.
2016 Syrah – this 100% Syrah is a powerhouse wine, both aromatically and on the palate. Dark fruit on the nose mixes with spice and a bit of smoke; on the palate, more dark fruit and spice and an almost viscous texture. Super long finish. I enjoyed this wine but would age it for a few years . . . oh who am I kidding? I’ll drink it soon but decant it a bit.
We finished our grueling (oops, no wineing) tasting with two wines made from the same grape – Malvasia Bianca – but two decidedly different expressions of this varietal. We tasted the 2016 Malvasia Bianca, essentially a dry wine with only 1.2 grams/liter of sugar. We happen to import a Malvasia from Croatia – also a dry, crisp, refreshing table wine – and have grown to love the floral notes and tropical fruit of this varietal. Aridus’ Malvasia Bianca is a delicious summer wine.
By contrast to the above wine, the 2015 Malvasia Bianca has 45 grams/liter of sugar which we consider to be “semi-sweet.” While you could easily enjoy this wine for dessert, its acidity makes it a worthy wine to have during the meal. I loved the balance of the wine’s higher sugar content and acidity.
And thus ended our tasting.
My verdict? I was pleasantly surprised with the range and quality of the Aridus wines. As Aridus continues to grow, it – and the other 85 or so Arizona wineries – will need to figure out what grapes grow best in the climate and soil of Arizona’s high desert. Like other up-and-coming regions, there is a lot of experimentation going on in Arizona. As Lisa Strid took us through the wines, her inventiveness, creativity and experimentation were evident both in terms of varietals, viticulture and winemaking approach. With the wines we tasted, Lisa employed so many different techniques: co-fermentation; maturation on lees; blend trials; varying oak protocols; cold-soaking; whole-cluster fermentation. Lessons will be learned from these experiments that will improve the wine produced going forward.
We’re excited to have been a part of this tasting and look forward to a visit to Aridus in the very near future.
July 25, 2018