This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.
When most people think of the American Southwest, images of expansive desert landscape, rugged terrain, and dramatic sunsets tend to come to mind. The home of the American West, this iconic region primarily made up of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, may not seem like the ideal places to grow wine. Yet, historically, it’s the birthplace of the first European vine plantings in the United States—thanks to early Spanish missionaries who brought a few vines along with them in the early sixteenth century. Fast forward a few hundred years to the 1970s, and you’ll find this region is burgeoning with thriving wine industries in each of its contiguous states.
The Southwest is enormous, spanning more than 1,300 miles (2,100 km) from east to west and north to south. The combination of soils, climate, and elevations ranging between 3,000 and 6,000 feet all combine to make the region a unique wine-growing landscape similar to the warmer parts of Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy.
In general, the Southwest tends to yield earthy, full-bodied reds and crisp, vibrant whites evocative of Old-World techniques rather than the riper, more oak-driven styles of the New World. This common thread says as much about the arid growing conditions and similar Mediterranean soils of the region as it does about the overall winemaking approach of its top producers. The one departure from this style includes Colorado’s cooler, higher elevation West Elks region, where you’ll find alpine-influenced wines more emblematic of Alsace, Alto Adige, and Mosel.
Though the Southwest continues to experiment with grape varieties, many producers have leaned into warm-climate Mediterranean varieties such as Sangiovese, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Aglianico, Tempranillo, Malvasia Bianca, Vermentino, Roussanne, and Viognier to best represent what the region can offer. (Some Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir can be found in Colorado’s cooler, mountainous areas.)
While Texas leads in overall vineyard plantings and production, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado have also evolved with compelling stories and promising wines that could easily stand alongside wines from around the world.
With its idyllic mountain-meets-desert landscapes, a rich cultural history, and hallmark pastel-colored sunsets, New Mexico has indeed earned its moniker, The Land of Enchantment. Its geography is influenced by the Rio Grande River and its expansive basin that extends beyond its meandering path. Early Spanish mission settlement gave rise to vineyard plantings for sacramental wine production, giving New Mexico the distinction of being the first place in the United States to have planted Vitis vinifera—more than a century before California. Despite its lengthy history, today’s New Mexico wine industry is still relatively small with roughly 1,500 acres under vine and just more than 50 wineries scattered throughout the state.
New Mexico is home to three American Viticultural Areas (AVA), including the Mesilla Valley, the Mimbres Valley, and the Middle Rio Grande Valley. The Mesilla Valley is the smallest, with only about 50 acres of vineyards. Yet, it is one of the most visited with the small town of Las Cruces as a popular hub for tasting rooms such as Luna Rossa Winery, Amaro Winery, D.H. Lescombes, and the nearby La Viña Winery.
Located in the southwestern part of the state, the Mimbres Valley spans more than 636,000 acres and is the largest geographical viticultural area with more than half of the state’s overall plantings.
The Middle Rio Grande Valley is situated along the mid-section of the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, stretching from Santa Fe to just south of Albuquerque. The AVA is home to nearly a dozen wineries, including iconic sparkling wine house Gruet and the new Noisy Water Winery tasting room in Albuquerque.
Just north of Santa Fe, in Dixon, a handful of wineries including Vivàc and La Chiripada have found success in some of the cooler, higher elevation sites at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.
Much of New Mexico’s modern wine industry owes its success to Luna Rossa winery and its pioneering founder, Paolo D’Andrea. A fourth-generation grape grower, D’Andrea was one of a handful of European immigrants who made their way to the Rio Grande river basin in the 1980s. Along with Laurent Gruet, D.H. Lescombes, and Bernd Maier, he is part of a handful of visionaries who brought their wine knowledge and skills from the Old World to New Mexico. Originally from a small village in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of northeastern Italy, D’Andrea studied winemaking and viticulture while at university. He came to New Mexico in 1986 to teach the local workforce how to prune vineyards and as luck would have it, he never left. D’Andrea married and started a family, eventually planting a vineyard. In 2001, he opened Luna Rossa Winery bringing classic Italian varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto, Refosco, and Montepulciano to New Mexico.
But D’Andrea’s impact extends beyond Luna Rossa. He’s also the state’s most prominent grape grower, managing more than 330 acres of vineyards (133.5 hectares) in the Mimbres Valley. Though much of his yield goes to his own production, many of New Mexico’s top producers also purchase grapes from him. Today, D’Andrea focuses primarily on vineyard management, while his son, Mar-co, now manages winemaking. An enology graduate of the University of Udine in Friuli, Marco is part of the next generation of New Mexico producers to lead the state into its next chapter.
Considering its proximity and adjoining border, it’s no surprise that Texas is technically the second state in the U.S. to see plantings of European grape varieties. But as with the rest of the Southwest, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that production in Texas started to pick up. Today the state has more than 450 permitted wineries and 8 AVAs, including the Texas Hill Country and the Texas High Plains, the two most important regions of the Lone Star State.
Once a wild, untamed frontier of craggy ranges blanketed by evergreen yaupon and sprawling oak trees, it’s doubtful the original German settlers to the rugged Texas Hill Country would have envisioned its future as a place for relaxing weekend escapes. And certainly not as a wine destination. Yet today, this AVA tops the list for the vinously curious, drawn to its rustic topography and the prospect of what the wines of the Lone Star State have to offer.
These days, the ever-increasing number of visitors to the Hill Country has persuaded a similar escalation of tasting room openings to help slake their thirst. You’ll find more than 50 of them within a close radius of Fredericksburg. Among those not-to-miss are Lewis Wines, Ron Yates Winery, William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Adega Vinho, Sandy Road Vineyards, and Lost Draw Cellars. But while the Hill Country may be the playground for Texas wine tourism, the Texas High Plains AVA is the state’s viticultural heart. More than 75 percent of the grapes grown in Texas come from the dusty, wind-blown Panhandle near Lubbock. Though seemingly flat and unremarkable, with miles upon miles of cotton, peanut, and row crop fields, this region sits atop the Llano Estacado, an expansive mesa formation noted as one of the largest tablelands on the continent with elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 feet.
Estacado Winery, one of the oldest and largest producers in the state. His son, Kim, carried on his father’s ambition. The younger McPherson studied enology and viticulture at the University of California-Davis and made wine for Napa’s Trefethen Winery and at Llano Estacado Winery before launching his eponymous McPherson Cellars in 1998. Kim McPherson’s early commitment to warm-climate varieties has helped pave a more prosperous path for the Texas wine industry. Moreover, his wisdom and guidance has helped many of the state’s up-and-coming producers chart a course of their own.
Though Arizona is most associated with sun-shine, cactus, and the Grand Canyon, it’s fast becoming a region-to-watch. The state boasts various microclimates with mild winters and often sweltering summers that quickly ripen fruit. Arizona has three main growing regions, including the Sonoita and Willcox AVAs, and the Verde Valley, which is awaiting AVA approval.
East of Tucson, near the state’s southeastern border, the Willcox AVA is home to more than 70 percent of Arizona’s grape production. Most of the region’s vineyards are planted at elevations between 4,000 and 5,500 feet, allowing for up to a 50° F variation in diurnal temperature during the growing season. Will-cox is home to roughly 1,000 acres of vineyard and nearly two-dozen wineries and tasting rooms, including Pillsbury Wine, Bodega Pierce, and Sand Reckoner.
Located about an hour southeast of Tucson, in the state’s southeastern corner, Sonoita is a region of rolling hills and expansive cattle ranches flanked by a series of mountain ranges. Here, a few of the industry’s top visionaries have staked their claim, including Callaghan Vineyards, Dos Cabezas Wine Works, Rune Wines, and Los Milics Winery.
A key figure in Arizona’s wine story, Kent Callaghan has been one of the industry’s most trusted advisors and mentors for more than 30 years. He helped his parents plant and launch Callaghan Vineyards in the 1990s, and discovered that warm-climate varieties from the Rhône, Spain, and Italy would be the future for Arizona wine.
Callaghan mentored a young Todd Bostock who had taken an eager interest in wine more than 20 years ago. Bostock began in the cellar with the late Al Buhl, founder of Dos Cabezas Wine Works, which initially launched in 1995. A few years later, Bostock had worked his way up to head winemaker and was joined in partnership by his parents to plant their own family vineyard in 2004. In 2006, Bostock, his parents, and his wife Kelly took ownership of the winery from a retiring Buhl and have since carried the torch for quality Arizona wine.
Nearby, James Callahan of Rune Wines has leveraged his previous winemaking experience in New Zealand’s Wairarapa region, California’s Russian River Valley, and at Washington’s notable Gramercy Cellars to showcase Arizona’s terroir from each of its growing regions. Taking a low intervention approach in winemaking, Callahan places emphasis on Rhône Valley varieties, producing elegant, expressive wines from Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc.
Just down the road, Los Milics Winery from Pavle and Carla Milic is the latest addition to Sonoita. Leaning on decades of experience in running wine programs for fine dining restaurants in New York, Napa, and at Scottsdale’s James Beard Award-winning FnB restaurant, Pavle Milic has fully invested in the potential for Arizona wine. The new expansive wine-making facility and vineyards are a precursor to the property’s forthcoming high desert luxury hotel and restaurant, which promises to offer a taste of Arizona fine dining.
A couple of hours north of Phoenix, the Verde Valley is in the heartland of Arizona’s most visited towns, including Sedona, Je-rome, Camp Verde, and Cottonwood. Though early plantings date back to the late 1800s, the region experienced a rapid resurgence in wine production in the early 2000s. Much of the region’s success is thanks to Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards, and Puscifer. Keenan moved to the area from California in the late 1990s and noted a striking resemblance to the iconic wine-growing regions in Italy, Spain, and Australia.
Though internationally known as the lead singer for the rock band Tool, Keenan’s insatiable curiosity about wine prompted him to plant a vineyard in 2002. Today, he owns eight vineyards in both the Verde Valley and Willcox.
Keenan has also been an instrumental force in launching the Arizona Vignerons Alliance (along with Todd Bostock and Kent Callaghan), a missional organization to help raise the standard of quality for Arizona wine. He’s also been a key contributor to the Southwest Wine Center, an enology and viticulture program at the Yavapai Community College. Through his Four Eight Wineworks project, he has helped upstart wine producers launch their own brands, including Chateau Tumbleweed, Bodega Pierce, and Heartwood Cellars. His community leadership has helped revive the towns of Jerome and Cottonwood through his winery tasting rooms and the farm-fresh Osteria at Merkin Vineyards, as well as a forthcoming hilltop tasting room, restaurant, and coffee shop overlooking the entire valley.
While most people view Colorado as a Rocky Mountain winter playscape, they’re often surprised to find that there’s a vibrant, burgeoning wine industry. In the northwest part of the state, you will find a veritable fruit basket of orchards and vineyards, as well as a broad selection of wineries and tasting rooms throughout Denver and Boulder showcasing Colorado wine. Located on the “western slopes” of the Rocky Mountains, between Palisade and Grand Junction, the Grand Valley AVA is Colorado’s primary growing region. With nearly 800 acres under vine, the region accounts for more than 80 percent of Colorado’s overall plantings. The Colorado River bisects this arid, desert mountain landscape at the mouth of the DeBeque Canyon. Jutting out from a bend in the river is a dramatic rocky outcrop called the Book Cliffs, which reflects solar energy onto the valley floor, offering consistent warmth through the region. Breezes from the Colorado River keep air flowing through the vineyards during the hot summers and provides warm air during cold winters.
Along the warmer valley floor, producers work with Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Roussanne. But in the cooler higher elevation sites, varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon are more prominent.
Colorado’s second AVA, the West Elks, is located about 65 miles southeast of the Grand Valley, between the small towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia. This tiny region hugs the North Fork of the Gunnison River as it snakes to the southeast and is home to several small, artisan producers that represent about 10 percent of the state’s overall plantings. Here, growing conditions are significantly cooler, and plantings of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay can be found at elevations as high as 7,000 feet, making it one of the highest growing regions in the world.
Colorado also has a few outlier vineyard areas, including one in the desert terrain of the state’s southwest corner, around Mesa Verde National Park, where Rhône varieties do well. The second is on the Eastern slope of the Rockies, near Denver, where harsh winter conditions only allow for cold-hardy varieties such as St. Vincent, Chambourcin, and Seyval Blanc.
For Denver sommeliers Steve Steese and Jayme Henderson, Colorado wine became more than a curiosity, it became a full-time job. Having sampled selections from BookCliff Vineyards, Colterris, Creekside Cellars, Carlson Creek, and more, the two took a leap of faith in 2017 and bought an existing 23-acre vineyard in the West Elks AVA. At an elevation of 6,000 feet, the vineyard had been planted in 1987 with Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc, but it required a little TLC. While bringing the land back to health, the two also released their Storm Cellar brand using both estate grapes as well as grapes from the Grand Valley.
But the Storm Cellar is only one example of the many promising producers out of Colorado. The Stone Cottage Cellar, Colterris, BookCliff Vineyards, Sauvage Spectrum, Red Fox Cellars, Creekside Cellars, Buckel Family Wines, and Carboy Winery are also worth a look.
Just as every wine-growing region experiences its own set of challenges, the Southwest is no exception. Late spring frosts and early fall freezes weigh in as one of the top concerns across the region. Due to its higher elevations, Colorado’s growing season is usually shorter than the other areas by a couple of weeks, often making it difficult for some grapes to ripen fully.
Across the region, the effects of climate change are evident with temperatures estimated to have warmed between one-half and one degree (F), or around .56 degrees (C), and severe weather events including intense thunderstorms with hail and wind, substantial flooding, and more extended periods of drought. But because these regions are still relatively young, significant data comparing the conditions of previous growing seasons is lacking.
However, because producers have been working with warm-climate varieties for the past decade, in many ways, it may be that the Southwest is uniquely poised to withstand the impending changes brought on by the effects of climate change. This silver lining, along with a promising increase in quality wines and committed grape growers and winemakers, spells a bright future for the Southwest.
Jessica Dupuy is a wine and spirits columnist, certified sommelier and WSET Diploma candidate. She is the author of several books including Uchi: The Cookbook; The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family and Love; The United Tastes of Texas; Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border. Her latest book, The Wines of Southwest U.S.A. covers the emerging wine regions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Dupuy lives in the Texas Hill Country, just west of Austin, with her family. Among the things she enjoys most are cooking with her kids, sharing great wine with friends, and fly fishing with her husband.