It’s Autumn in Arizona
It’s autumn. Vignerons are thinking about the weather: will the sunshine persist, will there be enough (but not too much) rain, will the grapes ripen well and fully? The rest of us (those without vineyards) are also thinking about the weather. But our thoughts are: when will it snow, how cold and how long will winter be, and most of all, can we possibly escape at least some of the slush, ice, and biting winds?
And lots of us do make our escapes. Each year, half a million Canadians visit Arizona. Many are snowbirds like me, who wait smugly in our warm desert homes for the bitter Canadian winter to pass.
While we wait, we hike in the desert, sightsee, shop with our blessedly strong Canadian dollars, watch the Suns, Cardinals and Diamondbacks, and eat in the wide array of excellent restaurants. And we drink wine — lots of it, because the prices here are shockingly low, even compared to my beloved Alberta.
One of the keys to wine enjoyment is, of course, drinking local. “Local wines — in the Sonoran Desert?” you ask? Well, yes. Some very good wines are made here, from grapes grown here (although many Arizona wineries also use grapes from California).
Their secret to success is that the Arizona vineyards are located at higher altitudes (up to 5,200 feet), in the mountainous areas in the northwest and southeast parts of the state. There, the grapes do not suffer from extreme summer temperatures, and the differential between daytime highs and nighttime lows (as much as 10˚C) makes for good acidity and aromas even though the grapes can get very ripe.
While Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay predominate, in this “frontier” area the wineries are experimenting with many varietals including Italian (Sangiovese, Malvasia Bianco) and Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Rousanne).
Wine tourism is increasingly popular: there are dozens of wineries in Arizona now, and more putting out shoots every year. Almost all of them welcome visitors, although they tend to be more casual and less sophisticated in catering to tourists than their Californian counterparts.
Somewhat typically of new wine areas, some producers try to make up for young vines and lack of winemaking experience with cutesy names and eye-catching labels. Australia has its koala bears and kangaroos; Arizona has its roadrunners and lizards. But, as everywhere, there may be little relationship between the adorability of the label and the quality of the wine inside the bottle.
I have found good wines from several Arizona winemakers. One of my favourite labels is Page Springs Cellars, located in the northeast, near Sedona. Family owned, it was started in 2004. The vineyards lie mostly in the northwest, from 3,500 to 5,200 feet altitude, on sandy loam soil over a volcanic and limestone base; some grapes are purchased as well.
Page Springs has spawned several offspring wineries, including another good one, Arizona Stronghold. AS was formed in 2007 with the philosophy that great wine “has to be made by people that care.” Arizona Stronghold’s vineyards are mostly in the southeast, at about 4,300 feet, on sandy loam soil over a volcanic base. Years ago this area was the redoubt of the mighty Apache chief Cochise, and several AS labels pay tribute to Apache warriors.
On a recent visit I enjoyed these wines. Some are for everyday, some are surprisingly sophisticated.
Page Springs Vino de la Familia Blanca 2011 ($21)
100% Malvasia, pale silvery-yellow, bouquet of melon, apples and lime, with more melon, citrus and honey on the palate.
Page Springs Mules Mistake 2011 ($16)
Trying for a lighter, Beaujolais style, this is a blend of mostly Zinfandel with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Barbera, Grenache and even some California Gewürztraminer. Pale cranberry red with a candy apple/raspberry nose. A crowd-pleaser with strawberry and raspberry flavours and a good tannic backbone.
Page Springs La Serrana 2010 ($26)
50/50 blend of Viognier and very ripe Rousanne, with no malolactic. Medium lemon-yellow with peaches and flowers on the nose. Interesting flavours of stone fruit and a hint of bitter almond. Great food wine, good value, and my favourite of the Page Springs tasting.
Page Springs Super Arizonan 2011 ($32)
Mostly Sangiovese with Cab Sauv and a little Petit Verdot. Medium cherry red with a sweet nose of strawberry and candy apple, this wine is very fruity with cherry and cranberry flavours, all nicely balanced.
Arizona Stronghold Cochise County Chardonnay 2010 ($35)
Aiming for a Burgundy style, this wine was aged on its lees in neutral oak casks and had no malolactic fermentation, so as to preserve acidity. Medium gold, with a mild nose of apples and a touch of vanilla. On the palate it features apples and pineapple, zippy acidity and a long finish.
Arizona Stronghold Lozen 2010 ($40)
Lozen was an Apache warrior and “seer.” The wine is a meritage blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec. Deep garnet with a nose of cassis and cedar, it has lots of cherry fruit with mineral and herbal flavours, all in good balance. My overall top point scorer.
Arizona Stronghold Taza 2011 ($20)
Taza was one of Cochise’s sons. This eclectic blend includes Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Malvasia, Chenin Blanc and even a bit of Gewürztraminer. It is pale silvery yellow with a strong floral and gooseberry nose, the Sauv Blanc and Riesling shining through. It is dry, an aperitif wine with good acidity and melon and citrus flavours.
Arizona Stronghold Dala Chardonnay 2011 ($20)
Dala means one in Apache, signifying this is a single varietal wine. Medium gold in colour, it has a powerful nose of banana and apple. Full bodied with flavours of apple, melon and lime, this was another high-scorer.