Arizona has incredibly old winemaking history, but is a relatively new region to revive commercial wine production after Prohibition. In the 1500s Spanish Jesuit priests planted grapevines to make sacramental wine. More recently Henry Schuerman arrived in Red Rock around 1884 and set up extensive orchards and grapevines. He worked with varietals from the Austro-Hungarian empire, most likely including zinfandel. Prohibition cut into his progress with grapes. (Johnson 2009:200) Wine production nosedived during Prohibition, and viticulture didn't ramp up again until the 1970s.
Arizona is hot and dry, and the state possibly got its name from the Spanish term "arida zona," arid zone in English. Commercial winemaking in Arizona, interestingly enough, parallels recent breakthroughs in temperature control that enable winemakers to make a wide variety of wine styles that may not have been previously available to them 5 decades in the past. I tasted some very light and pretty, lower alcohol wines (12/13ish) with high acidity that I wasn't expecting from such a hot place.
In fact, the overall acidity of many of the wines was surprising to me, and is mainly due to diurnal temperature swings. Several producers mentioned the role that the chilly nighttime temperatures had to do with maintaining acid. But canopy management is equally important, and a huge focus in Arizona viticulture. There is also much experimentation with new ways to manage canopies to keep their grapes shaded from the fierce midday sun.
The biggest issue that producers face in the vineyards are frosts, and sometimes even hail. Frosts often come just after bud break and can kill off over half of the potential bunches. In frost-kill years, the yields are incredibly low, and the wines are usually a bit more extracted. Producers are using large fans to combat frost by keeping the air flowing throughout the vines.
Because of Arizona's relatively new breakthrough on the national commercial wine scene, there are few acres of older vines in the state. There are many, many acres of new vineyards with vines that are 1-6 years old-- not quite ready for yielding high quality wine grapes. Page Springs Cellars, for example, has planted about 30 new acres of vineyards in the last 2 years. Thus, the industry is growing fast, and seems to be gearing up for a heavy focus on estate fruit, but currently finds a need to outsource fruit from other areas. Most producers who seek grapes out-of-state look west to California, and import juice or actually go there and drive back whole clusters to work with. Others sometimes look south to Mexico, but can run into issues when bringing the grapes over the border.
Multi-regional blending is a major part of the current winemaking culture (reminding me of the philosophies of the large Champagne houses and Grange where blending leads to enhanced complexity), but--refreshingly--so is transparency. Every producer I visited meticulously listed the percentages of grape varietals in their blends, and the provenance of each varietal. A typical tasting room guide sheet or wine bottle label on a blend might read this way:
85% cabernet sauvignon (AZ)
10% petite verdot (CA)
5% roussane (AZ)
In some wine regions of the world, producers are hesitant to admit multi-regional blending (or even the addition of small amounts of an additional variety or two). This is not the case in Arizona. The transparency was great-- winemakers were quick to share their methods and techniques, and there were no secrets about what was in the bottle.
Not all wines are multi-regional blends, though, and there tends to be a sense of proudness for the wines made from all-Arizona fruit.
Some producers spoke of blending with California fruit to get that higher brix to balance out Arizona's high-acid fruit. I know-- at first you don't think that desert fruit would be high acid, but therein lies the power of those extra-cold nights....
Right now, there are several wine styles and grape varieties that people are working with. At this time, it would be difficult to nail down (in terms of grape variety) what Arizona wine is all about. But if I had to narrow it down based on my observations, I'd say that viognier, chenin blanc, and unique aromatic white blends dominate the highest quality wines in the white wine market, and Rhone-style reds were also drinking quite nicely (the syrahs and the Rhone-style blends).
Winemaking style is varied-- everything from light partial-carbonic reds to a few extracted tannin monsters. But overall, the white styles were crisp and lean with high acid (I only tasted one or two rich, fat, oak aged whites). As one fellow poured me a flight of crisp and lean white wines he said, "I mean, we live in a desert. It's really hot here. The kinds of wines we like to make are refreshing because those are the kinds of wines we want to drink." The crisp whites and lighter reds also go great with local foods that are based heavily on Mexican cuisine and local delicacies such as prickly pear cactus.
There is a vibrant tasting room culture in the Cottonwood/Jerome area. Historic Jerome-- formerly a wealthy copper mining town-- has about 400 permanent residents, but attracts about 60,000 tourists each year. It makes sense that near-by wineries would want off-site tasting rooms in these heavily-visited areas. Cottonwood has several tasting rooms that line Main Street. This is part of a larger Wine Trail.
Above all else, I was struck by the sense of community, comradeship, and teamwork between various people in the wine industry. I visited Jerome, Cottonwood, and Cornville, and everyone I met (tasting room pourers, vineyard managers, winemakers, cellar workers, sales managers) seemed to give off a sense that they were part of something much bigger than their own individual wines and projects.
At one winery, I was chatting with the guys who were working there, and it turned out that almost all of them had their own labels and could have been focusing on their own projects, but they were all helping out at this other winery. There seems to be a willingness among friends to share resources such as fruit sources, winery equipment, labor, and cellar space. I'm sure that the intra-personal relationships are much more nuanced and complex than my base observations, but for my first impression of this community, I found the sense of "we-are-in-it-together" quite inspiring.
Arizona Stronghold winery, founded in 2007 by Maynard James Keenan and
Eric Glomski, has the same name as the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard-- an 80 acre vineyard in southeastern Arizona from which the winery sources much of its fruit. The oldest part of this vineyard was planted in 1983, and there are currently about 60-65 acres of active vines (various varietals), and several nursery blocks as well.
I found the Site Archive Series from this producer particularly interesting-- this terroir-focused line within Arizona Stronghold is released to their wine club members, and it is single varietal expressions from different blocks of the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard. These individual wines are blended to produce many of the flagship Arizona Stronghold wines; for instance, the Arizona Stronghold "Nachise" 2011 rhone blend is a combination of the Site Archive syrah, the Site Archive grenache, and some petite syrah and mourvedre.
In the big picture of things, Arizona Stronghold winery is special because it has had several wine labels break off as sister wineries. It is sort of like a Mother Ship that has quite literally seeded several new labels and projects that will grow over the next few decades to enhance the core of what Arizona wine is all about. Arizona Stronghold Vineyard is a current source of grapes for several of these related wineries.
These wines are Keenan's project. The grapes are sourced from high elevation terroirs, and are comprised of mostly Italian & Spanish varieties. The bottlings all have thoughtful, provoking names. Keenan prefers carbonic maceration for the reds (in open tops) and whole cluster press stainless steel ferments for the whites.
The Merkin label uses some multi-state blending, while Caduceus is Arizona based. Keenan's single-vineyard Caduceus "Judith" bottling is his top cuvee, named after his mom.
Page Springs Cellars is located off a small road that passes through Cornville. The winery is nestled in a small valley with rolling hills on all sides. Page Springs (an artesian spring that bubbles up from the ground just off-site of the vineyard) meanders through the property and is the main water source for the winery (and obviously, it is also the winery's namesake). Young estate vineyards surround the winery, and the top floor houses a cozy tasting room with a deck that has a killer view of the vineyards.
Page Springs was founded by Eric Glomski. He has inspired so many of his friends and co-workers to create their own wines, and has really had a hand in expanding what Arizona wine can be. He does great things with chenin blanc and syrah, and has interesting new plantings that I plan to keep an eye on-- including traminette & the famed US-indigenous Norton.
Johnson, Hoyt C. (2009) The Sedona Story: Settlement to Centennial. Arizona: AZS.