Much to Discover in the High Desert Wines of Southern Arizona

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 04-13-2019

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Surreal scenery outside Sonoita, Arizona.

As an East Coaster, I didn’t see a proper American desert until I first traveled to Arizona in 2010. Immediately, I became obsessed with this state and all its extreme natural beauty. With few expectations, I also dove deep into the wine scene, and found some dynamic producers making delicious wines.

Many of the wines I enjoyed most hailed from the Southeast of Arizona, the Cochise County area, which abuts Mexico and New Mexico. The state’s only American Viticultural Areas are located here, Sonoita and Willcox. This is also where the modern Arizona wine industry began, when soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt founded Sonoita Vineyards in 1983 after an experimental vineyard showed promise. I recently visited the region for the first time and encountered a beautiful land of high desert plains, rugged mountains, wide open space, and exciting wines.

Yes, Arizona is hot and dry. But the diversity in microclimates, soil types, winegrapes, and winemakers tells a much more complex story. Geologic maps of Arizona are dizzying, and the area has an abundance of rocky, sandy soils, limestone, clay, giving winegrowers many great options to work with.

Most of the vineyards in Southeast Arizona are planted around 4,300-5,000 feet in elevation. This leads to serious temperature swings, allowing grapes to ripen in the sun and heat, and maintain acidity as the nighttime temperatures drop. During my visit to Sonoita in February, I woke up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit after driving through snow-covered mountains, their peaks sometimes hidden above the clouds. The day after I left, six inches of snow fell, which goes to show how variable and extreme conditions can be.

To start off my visit, I met Todd Bostock, winemaker at Dos Cabezas, a producer I’ve grown to respect. We met on a cold, sunny day in Sonoita, and I tasted through his wines and chatted about what he’s up to these days at his winery. And he’s up to a lot of awesome stuff.

Pronghorn Vineyard. Credit: Dos Cabezas

Pronghorn Vineyard. Credit: Dos Cabezas

The late Arizona winegrower Al Buhl started Dos Cabezas in 1995. Todd, who started home winemaking early before studying with UC Davis’ extension program, took a winemaking job at Dos Cabezas in 2002. The Bostock family took control over the project in 2006. Todd farms 37 acres in Willcox’s Cimarron Vineyard, which sit at 4,300 feet. This fascinating vineyard is home to seven white grape varieties (from Albarino to Viognier) and 17 red grapes (from Aglianico to Vranec). The 15-acre Pronghorn vineyard, in Sonoita, sits at 4,800 feet and is home to ten different grape varieties.

As such, Dos Cabezas is all about the blends. There’s a lot of vintage variation in this part of the country, and lots of weather difficulties, including early and late frosts, hail, so having access to a wide array of grapes gives Todd freedom to tweak the makeup of his wines each vintage. You can tell a lot about a wine nerd by what empty bottles they keep around on shelves or cabinets. In Todd’s barrel room, I saw a diverse selection and epic bottles, but it was the Chateauneuf wines (from several of my favorite producers) that stood out. And that Chateauneuf ethos of blending all sorts of different grapes comes through in Todd’s wines.

Todd Bostock in the Dos Cabezas barrel room.

Todd Bostock in the Dos Cabezas barrel room.

Like many winemakers I’ve met over the years, Todd seems driven to experiment. For example, he makes a Ramato-style, skin-fermented Pinot Grigio. I tasted a Madeira-style fortified desert wine, which gets the whole treatment of oxygen and blistering Arizona summer heat. Todd is also working on a solera-style sparkling wine, which so far includes wine from three vintages. It’s a quirky blend of Tempranillo, Grenache and Riesling, and the barrel sample he poured me was delightfully bright, zesty, floral, with sea salt and chalky notes. The finished wine should be something special.

To get a handle on the heights that varietal wines can achieve in Southeast Arizona, look no further than Rune wines. Rune founder James Callahan embodies the DIY spirit that attracted me to Arizona and its wines. With the goal of making due with what he had, James built his Sonoita winery and tasting room by hand, laying the concrete himself. He stores his wines in temperature-controlled trucking containers, which he ordered off Craig’s List. His winery is off the grid, fully solar-powered, and rustic, but it is home to some pristine and beautiful wines.

James worked harvests in Walla Walla, Washington and Wairarapa, New Zealand, before landing a job at the Sonoma Pinot powerhouse Kosta-Browne. A native of Arizona, he was excited to come home for a winemaking job with Willcox-based Aridus. He then struck off on his own with Rune in 2013, and he works as a consulting winemaker for other producers as well.

James sources his a lot of his fruit from Pillsbury Vineyard in the Willcox region, which he calls, “truly a petri dish of wine industry growth.” He also recently planted a vineyard near his winery in Sonoita. In the winery, James uses native yeasts to craft small lot varietal wines from Rhone grapes. I hadn’t tasted a single Rune wine before my trip, but I was blown away by the quality of these wines. If you’re skeptical that Roussanne and Viognier wines from Arizona can be fresh, bright and balanced — I was — may I present these wines.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet up with well-known Arizona vintner Kent Callaghan of Elgin-based Callaghan Vineyards during my trip, whose wines I’ve tasted and enjoyed in the past. This producer dates back to 1990, during what must’ve been a really gutsy time to plant a vineyard in Southeast Arizona. Right after planting his Buena Vista Vineyard in 1990, Arizona experienced a tremendous heatwave that led to the closure of the Phoenix airport for a few days, and the death of many a young vine. But, since then, Callaghan has been producing some lovely wines based on classic Mediterranean grapes from France and Spain. I would be remiss to leave these wines out of this report, so Kent sent me a case to taste, including some library vintages.

Lastly, I’ve included some wines from Aridus in this report as well. Located in Willcox, this producer has been getting some attention lately, and they’ve even opened a tasting room in bustling Old Tow Scottsdale. It’s worth a visit if you’re in that area for a while.

I’ve included a lengthy list of tasting notes from my trip below. The Dos Cabezas and Rune wines were tasted with the winemakers, while I tasted the Callaghan and Aridus wines sighted, at home. Most of the wines are available directly from the producers, or a handful of select wine shops in Arizona. Since these wines are made in small amounts, finding them outside of the state can be difficult. Another reason why a trip is a good idea.

Dos Cabezas

2018 Dos Cabezas Wine Works White Cimarron Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County
$19
This Cimarron vineyard has a kitchen sink of white varieties planted, and this wine captures a lot of them: 38% Picpoul Blanc, 22% Viognier, 16% Roussanne, 10% Malvasia, 7% Albariño, 7% Grenache Blanc. It’s a fascinating and expressive wine that offers a panoramic picture of the vineyard through all these grapes. I get aromas of peaches, limes, lemon peel, green melon, all sorts of flowers. The palate is pure and vibrant with a waxy texture but bright acidity. Peaches, lemon curd, papaya — tropical meets citrus in just the right amounts, with notes of sea salt, almond, complex floral notes. Balanced, complex, vibrant. (90 points IJB)

2017 Dos Cabezas Wine Works El Campo Blanco Pronghorn Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County
$30
This is a fascinating blend of Roussanne, Viognier, Picpoul, whole-cluster pressed, 12 months in Austrian oak. These grapes are harvested in two stages, an early harvest and a second one weeks later. The aromas pop with peaches, apples, pineapple, white tea. Plump texture, yet (again with these wines) that crisp acidity keeps it lively. Apples, peaches, lemon, mixed with sea salt, almond, some herbal and chalky elements. Really impressive stuff. (91 points IJB)

2018 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Pink - Arizona, Cochise County
$19
Another interesting blend, this one has 50% Garnacha, 20% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 10% Graciano, and 5% Piquepoul Blanc. Fermented in tank, old 500 liter barrels, and a new 1,500 liter Austrian foudre. Smells of all sorts of wildflowers, verbena, wild cherries and strawberries. Crisp acidity frames the wine, it’s bright but shows nice depth of texture. Strawberries, wild cherries, red apple peel, along with spicy herbs, rose petals, verbena and tobacco elements. A seriously good rosé. They also release a carbonated, canned version that is a ton of fun. (89 points IJB)

2014 Dos Cabezas Wine Works El Norte Cimarron Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County
$30
A blend of Mourvèdre and Grenache that spends 24 months in large oak barrels. Age has done this well, and more time will continue that trend. The aromas boast warm spices (clove, pepper, bay leaf and creosote) with red cherries, raspberries and red apple. The palate is warm and inviting yet vibrant with light/medium tannins and moderate acidity. Juicy, tangy red plums and cherries, with a complex, well-integrated blend of spicy pepper, clove, bay leaf, warm clay. Vibrant yet deep, this could age for a while. (90 points IJB)

2015 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Toscano - Arizona, Cochise County
thumbnail (8)$30
A blend of 55% Sangiovese, 21% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Aglianico, 7% Petit Verdot, aged two years in oak barrels. Lovely aromas of berry compote, spiced black tea, pepper, cedar, chewing tobacco and mint. The palate is full and velvety with medium acidity and lots of plums and cherry fruit. Rich yet bright, juicy but complex, with lots of leathery, peppery, herbal tones. I’d love to see what this does in the next three or four years. (90 points IJB)

2012 Dos Cabezas Wine Works El Campo Pronghorn Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County
$50
Tempranillo and Mourvedre with Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Graciano, aged two years in new French oak. Lots of spicy aromas of bay leaf, pepper, creosote, leather, which play well with the juicy, bright red fruits. On the palate, this is vibrant and spicy with integrated tannins and fresh acidity. Red cherries and plums play well with cocoa, earth, leather, warm clay, creosote, cedar. Complex and delicious with lots of time ahead. This is a beautiful blended expression of Pronghorn goodness. (92 points IJB)

2014 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Aguileon - Arizona, Cochise County
$30
49% Tempranillo, 30% Graciano, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. Smells like warm cherries and plums, tobacco, clove, coffee, clay and earthy notes. On the palate, it’s full and rich, with some grippy structure, but the acidity moderates nicely. Plums, black cherries, the fruit is full but tangy, laced with earthy/spiccoffee, cedar, pepper and olive notes – the complexity is nuts. This could use at least a few years in the cellar, but it’s still highly delicious right now. (91 points IJB)

2015 Dos Cabezas Wine Works La Montaña - Arizona, Cochise County
$50
Petite Sirah, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has a dark core of aromas (blackberry and back cherry compote) with clove, coffee, anise, pepper and creosote notes. Full and saucy on the palate with nice grip and medium/low acidity. Plum cake and blackberry compote mix nicely with anise, clove, dark chocolate, espresso, cedar. This is rich and deep but also earthy and spicy. I’d like to see what this does in three or four years. (91 points IJB)

Rune

2017 Rune Wines Rosé - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
$20
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, and Graciano. Saigneé method, fermented in stainless steel and a French oak puncheon. Pretty pink color. Aromas show spicy pepper and wildflowers on top of cherries and strawberries. This is fresh and zippy on the palate with a lovely, deep texture and mouthfeel. Strawberries, white cherries, topped in white pepper with some chalky, crusty, mineral notes. This is a serious pink. (90 points IJB)

2017 Rune Wines Viognier Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
thumbnail (4)$28
Lovely aromas of peaches, green melon, guava, lemon, lots of flowers, too. The palate is plump and lees-stirr-y and round yet super crisp, and there’s a lively mineral streak throughout that I really like. Pure and vibrant, which is not something I say often about a Viognier, but I love these honey, floral complexities, the vibrant and deep fruit. I’d like to see how this ages over the next five years. One of the best Viogniers I’ve had from anywhere in a long time. Fermented in stainless steel and old French oak. (92 points IJB)

2016 Rune Wines Mourvedre Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox,
$32
This is a really cool wine that is co-fermented with 3% Symphony, aged 20 months in neutral French oak. The nose is juicy with cherries and red plums, along with pepper, leather, paprika and other cool stuff going on. Juicy and cherry-driven on the palate with plums and raspberries, lots of spiced tea, herbs, pepper. There’s a mineral depth here as well that makes this wine pop. (92 points IJB)

2016 Rune Wines Wild Syrah Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
$45
This Cote-Rotie-style Syrah is co-fermented with Viognier and some Malvasia. It’s saucy and dark on the nose, black cherries and plums, laced with pepper, herbs, cocoa, violets and earth. Full and grippy on the palate but vibrant acidity, and the balance is superb. Juicy, full with black cherries and dark plums but the fruit has a tangy edge. Complex notes of spicy herbs, pepper, leather, cocoa and coffee. Lots going on here. I bought a few bottles to bury for a few years, because this will do more in the cellar. (92 points IJB)

2016 Rune Wines Petite Sirah Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
Nose shows surprising red fruits for a Petite Sirah – yeah there’s blackberry jam and such but also some juicy red plums and raspberries, with roses, violets, coffee. Serious grip on the tannins, this is a young wine, with medium acidity which helps keep the tannins in check. Plum cake, blackberry and raspberry am, along with smoky herbs, pepper, spiced tea, black olives. For a PS, this is almost “elegant” in a way, yet still seriously grippy. Really curious what this does with four or five years. (90 points IJB)

2016 Rune Wines Grenache Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
$28
This wine totally blew me away – the eye-opening wine of the trip. Nose shows bright and juicy cherries, strawberries, all sorts of airy, floral notes, herbs, lavender, pepper. On the palate this is juicy but smooth, delicious but really fresh, and the acidity is impressive. Bright cherry fruit topped in dusty, earthy, pepper, sage, all sorts of complexities. This is such a pretty Grenache that will age well, and I think it’d be a great ringer in a Chateauneuf tasting. Just wow. (93 points IJB)

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The entrance to Rune wines in Sonoita.

2014 Rune Wines Wild Syrah Pillsbury Vineyard - Arizona, Cochise County, Willcox
$45
Aromas of dark and juicy plums with earthy, peppery notes, iron and herbs. Still tannic and strong but it has some velvety feel to it, and bright acidity. Plums and dark cherries mix well with smoky herbs, coffee, leather, sage, warm clay, and some flower pot and violet petal notes. Wow, this has a lot of cellar time ahead, too. Beautiful stuff. Co-fermented with 3% Viognier.  (93 points IJB)

Callaghan

2017 Callaghan Dry Grenache Rosé - Arizona, Sonoita
$25
Bright pink color. Super floral on the nose with lots of spicy, herbal, rhubarb notes, along with white cherries and wild strawberries. Plump texture on the palate, mild acidity, this is fruity and fun with white cherries, strawberries, raspberries, red apple peel. Notes of white pepper, roses, spiced white tea. This is fun, fan-friendly stuff. (86 points IJB)

2017 Callaghan Love Muffin - Arizona
$28
Deep yellow color. Nose pops with lychee, pineapple, melon, along with lots of orange blossom, honeysuckle and sweet perfume. Plump and waxy texture on the palate, medium/low acidity offers a bit of freshness. Pineapple, lychee, so tropical, with lots of orange blossom, honeysuckle, nettle, white tea and nougat. Fun, forward, rich white blend. (86 points IJB)

2017 Callaghan Grenache Rhumb Line - Arizona, Cochise County
Medium ruby color. Aromas of red apples, raspberry and strawberry jam, along with rhubarb, cinnamon sticks and rose hips. Full-bodied, smooth tannins, medium acidity, packed with tart but jammy notes of strawberries, raspberries and candied red apple. Complex notes of sage, white pepper, sweet cola, rhubarb, with some cedar and espresso. Fun and forward but also lively and complex. Impressive stuff. (90 points IJB)

2013 Callaghan Padres - Arizona, Sonoita
Deep ruby/light purple color. Rich aromas of plums, a compote of raspberries, cranberries and red currants, topped in cinnamon, herbal tea and cocoa. Full-bodied with a velvety feel to the tannins, a big bold red but medium acidity helps. Saucy cranberries, currants, figs and raspberry jam, along with sweet herbs, cocoa, cinnamon, roasted chestnut. Bold and chewy but well-done, a log of depth and complexity here. 62% Graciano, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Tannat. (89 points IJB)

2016 Callaghan Padres - Arizona, Sonoita
Deep ruby/light purple color. Bold aromatics of sweet plums, raspberry jam, cherry pie, with cocoa, cola and spiced tea. Full-bodied with a plump and chewy feel medium tannins, medium acidity, the balance is quite nice. Sweet plums, raspberries and fig paste topped in roasted cocoa, sweet herbs, some nice earthy notes. A red for rich foods and a snowstorm! 65% Graciano, 17% Petite Verdot, 9% Tempranillo, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. (88 points IJB)

2013 Callaghan Caitlin’s - Arizona, Sonoita
Light purple color. Nose boasts rich plums, currants, fig paste, with violets, sage, menthol and earth. Full-bodied (15.3%) with velvety tannins and surprising acidity. Juicy and generous with its dark currant and black cherry fruit mixed with savory tones, grilled herbs, cracker pepper, menthol and vanilla. Fuller than the 2016 but it’s also settled down nicely and the balance is impressive. 64% Petite Verdot, 25% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc. (89 points IJB)

2016 Callaghan Caitlin’s - Arizona, Sonoita
$45
Light purple color. Nose shows currants, black cherries, fig paste, along with eucalyptus, sweet coffee, anise, cedar. Plush texture on the palate but some significant grip to the tannins, while surprising acidity keeps it lively. Tart currants laced with smoky herbs, menthol, black pepper and cocoa. Rich and saucy yet it maintains brightness. 67% Petite Verdot, 33% Cabernet Franc. (88 points IJB)

2015 Callaghan Aglianico Cimarron - Arizona, Cochise County
Deep purple color. Nose shows rich plums, blueberries, blackberries, this is dark and deep with milk chocolate, roasted chestnut. Full (15.3%) and plush with a velvety feel, although the tannins provide structure. Packed with hedonistic black fruit, and lots of it, but it’s also nicely mixed with coffee, cocoa, charcoal and mint. Bigger, more intense than the 2016, but really good. I’d like to see this in a few years. (88 points IJB)

2016 Callaghan Aglianico Cimarron - Arizona, Cochise County
Bright purple color. Whoa, the nose is packed with fruit (jammy blueberries and blackberries, roasted fig) with some cocoa and sweet vanilla. Full-bodied (14.7%) with chewy tannins and medium-low acidity. Cherries, fig cookies and blackberries, tons of fruit but it’s complemented by earth, clove, charred herbs, creosote and warm clay notes. Complex, unique, this should age nicely. (89 points IJB)

2013 Callaghan Tannat - Arizona, Sonoita
Rich purple color. Smoky nose of roasted figs, black currants and black cherry compote, along with anise and charcoal. Full-bodied on the palate with a velvety feel, medium acidity. Tart plums and plump black cherries, smooth and dark fruit, laced with anise, cocoa, sage, herbal tea. Really smoky and roasted, but fun stuff. (87 points IJB)

2016 Callaghan Tannat - Arizona, Sonoita
$35
Deep purple color. Dark and inky on the nose (blackberries, currant paste, plum compote) with smoky menthol, anise and charcoal elements. Full-bodied, grippy tannins, the acidity here is surprisingly tangy and really balances things out nicely. Black currants and dark plums, tangy, dark and suave, along with coffee, charcoal, anise, with black pepper, tar, vanilla and magic marker. Deep but tangy and complex, I’d love to see this in four or five years. (89 points IJB)

2017 Callaghan Tannat Rhumb Line - Arizona, Cochise County
Dark purple color. Nose boasts black cherries, roasted figs, blackberries, laced with smoke, charcoal, magic marker, sweet coffee and vanilla bean. Strong tannic backbone but a chewy feel, too, with moderating acidity. Saucy and rich with dark, deep black fruit (loads of it), backed up with charcoal, espresso, mint, earthy-mineral tones. Lots going on here, but this could use some time in the cellar. (88 points IJB)

Aridus

thumbnail (1)2017 Aridus White Field Blend – Arizona, Willcox
SRP: $28
Light yellow color. Aromas pop with pineapple, guava and lemon, topped in bright floral tones and some dusty, chalky notes. Light-bodied but nice depth on the palate, juicy yet light and brisk, this goes down so easily. Lemons, pineapple, green apples, topped in floral tones, crushed sweet tart candies, chalk, white pepper. Surprisingly brisk for a Viognier-based blend from Arizona – this is a serious patio pounder kind of wine. A low 11.0% alcohol, this is the first harvest from a new estate vineyard, and this wine is a field blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia Bianca. (87 points IJB)

2016 Aridus Syrah – Arizona, Cochise County
SRP: $37
Bold purple color. Aromas of smoky earth, violets, pepper, black tea, with plum cake and roasted fig. Burly on the palate yet velvety with medium/low acidity, enough to balance it out. Dark and saucy with black cherries, dark currants, roasted fig, mixed with clove, pepper, sage. Big, saucy, barbecue-friendly stuff. Co-fermented with 17% Viognier, aged 19 months in oak. (87 points IJB)

2016 Aridus Graciano  – Arizona, Willcox
SRP: $37
Light ruby color. Smells of raspberries, strawberries, spicy rhubarb, white pepper, sage, clay, earth. Medium-tannins on the palate with bright acidity and tangy raspberries and cherries. Balanced and vibrant, structured but accessible and fresh. Complex notes of spicy herbs, dried rose petals, pepper and clove. Apparently, Graciano does well here, because they nailed this. Aged 18 months in a mix of French and American oak. (89 points IJB)

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