Elaine Chukan Brown: ‘In conventional terms, Arizona seems an unlikely place for vines’

Elaine Chukan Brown: ‘In conventional terms, Arizona seems an unlikely place for vines’

Sonoita Vineyards, Elgin, Arizona.

Sonoita Creek carves through the basin, laying lanugo terraces of vegetation – shrubs of acacia, mesquite, yucca, whisk cactus and flowering ocotillo. To the south, a panorama opens, the horizon unimpeded by mountains until the other side of the Arizona-Mexico border. Sonoita, with its 800 residents, sits an hour south of the municipality of Tucson. The valley rises whilom 1,370m, with the surrounding mountains plane higher.

Sonoita is the rookery of Arizona wine. Missionaries settled to the south, bringing vines by the late-1700s, if not earlier. In the modern era, the first vineyards were established in the 1970s. Soil scientist and wine lover Dr Gordon Dutt noticed the pH and calcium content of the state’s soils resemble those of Burgundy, so he began planting vineyards on the eastern side of the Sonoita valley in the village of Elgin.

Within a few years, Dutt was making wine, and neighbouring vineyards followed. In 1984, Sonoita became one of the nation’s early AVAs. By the 1990s, wines of Sonoita were receiving national recognition and stuff poured at the White House.

With its success, growers began expanding into other parts of Arizona. In the 2000s, vineyards moved east to Willcox and north into Verde Valley, both high-elevation growing regions. Willcox affords relatively plane temperatures and plenty of land with the greatest diversity of grape varieties, rhadamanthine an AVA in 2016. In north-central Arizona, the Verde Valley is dominated by the state’s largest river system – it has unbearable water to dry sublet but competes with ranchers for land. It became an AVA in 2021.

Arizona’s early vineyards were planted to obvious contenders – Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah among them. But the unique growing conditions forced vintners to rethink expectations. What do you grow in a region that doesn’t resemble any other?

In conventional terms, Arizona seems an unlikely place for vines. People often imagine merely an well-worn desert, surely not a growing region for quality wine. But the range of elevations and textural landscape ways a plethora of microclimates. Canyons and valleys create pockets of cold. Hail can hit highlands in spring or summer. Winds imbricate the lowlands. Storing monsoons rush in from the south. Unprepossessed and rain prove the greatest challenges.

Today, the weightier vintners produce wine that speaks to the dusty, savoury aromatics of the Arizona desert: Storing Sage, Caduceus, Callaghan, Dos Cabezas, Los Milics, Merkin, Rune, Saeculum Cellars and Sand Reckoner principal among them.

Though inspired by a love of Europe, producers have been forced to let go of the need to emulate Old World regions and instead create a new paradigm. From them, a new host of varieties has emerged. Many bud late to stave spring frost and ripen early to escape variable weather. They handle calcareous soils and storing rain. Petit Manseng, made as dry table wine, is savoury, thirst-quenching and satisfying. Malvasia, with its exuberant aromatics, finds palate tension in calcareous soils. Clairette Blanche, Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc are heady in a blend. Aglianico, Graciano, Tannat, Tempranillo and Vranac rise as dominant reds.

Arizona’s winemaking within variable weather and matted seasons gives insight into the challenges of climate transpiration elsewhere. The most successful wineries are willing to experiment, seeking to create wines responsive to the region’s distinctive conditions.

The requirement for problem-solving ways breaking out of restrictive mindsets taken from traditional wine regions – those established in an era of increasingly resulting growing conditions that no longer exist. It’s an example built from a challenge, but moreover a reminder – we can drink fine wine in climate transpiration if we rise to meet it.

In my glass this month

In northeast Italy, Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi founded Ronchi di Cialla in the 1970s, single-minded to producing wines that represent the history of their region. In the process, they hunted x-rated vines in the hills of Friuli and single-handedly rescued Schioppettino from extinction. Their Schioppettino di Cialla remains one of my favourite wines of the Friuli Colli Orientali. The 2016 offers refreshing and savoury flavours, glittering tension and a long, palate-stimulating finish (US$53-$65 Cool Wine & Spirits, Gary’s, Wine Exchange).

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