Yes, world! Arizona is a great place to grow grapes! Moreover, celebrated winemakers have poured their considerable talent, energy, and expertise into creating an outstanding product. Though Arizona wines are flying below the national radar, bottle by bottle the state’s winegrowers are introducing the vibrant tastes of Arizona wines to oenophiles around the world. Arizona wines have appeared in fine restaurants and at the White House. Our winegrowers and their partners in the community continue to spread the word about our maturing wine industry. Winemaking presents an exciting economic opportunity for Arizona. One of the most popular forms of agritourism, vineyards, tasting rooms and wineries draw revenue and employ local workers. Wineries fuel support for businesses like hotels and restaurants, which also employ locals. Visitors to these areas have an opportunity not only to taste wine, but to experience a beautiful state park, museum, or other area attraction. In addition, wine as a finished product has a much higher value than the grapes used to make it. Grapes grown in Arizona become wine in Arizona. By creating this end product in-state, Arizonans are transforming a crop into a high value specialty product with economic benefits that stay in the community.
The Taste of Arizona
Arizona’s wineries produce distinctive whites, reds, and blush wines. While you’re unlikely to find a classic Merlot, the complexity of flavors and blends is extensive. Paula Woolsey, CSW, wine educator at the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapnai College and national sales manager for Arizona Stronghold & Caduceus Cellars, writes, “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, Malvasia Bianca, 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 is an exciting process of discovery. The character of Arizona wine is constantly evolving. Many regional winegrowers are cultivating lesser-known varietals to experiment with style, acid, and taste. Some viticulturists are bypassing well known grape varieties to discover strains that develop well in our climate and soil types. This means that when you come to an Arizona winery, you may experience an entirely original blend of wine.
Late summer marks the beginning of the Arizona grape harvest. From August through October, winemakers are reaping the mature fruit celebrating the year’s crop with a number of festivals and events. Individual wineries hold tasting events and tours and regional tastings showcase a variety of producers. Harvest Fest, held in Elgin in August, sparks the harvest season at Sonoita Vineyards. On Fridays in the summer and fall, catch a ride on the Grape Train Escape in the Verde Valley, a theme ride of the Verde Canyon Railroad that pairs wine and food with a tour of the beautiful red rock country. The Willcox Wine Festival in late October features two days of local artists, food from local restaurants, and, of course, local wines. Don’t miss the Great Arizona Grape Stomp, a series of 5K races held throughout the month of October in the Verde Valley, Sonoita, Willcox, and Fountain Hills. Tastings are held year round throughout the state, and many tasting rooms are open throughout the year.
Find more festivals from the Arizona Wine Growers.
Information from Dos Cabezas Wineworks, Arizona Stronghold Wines, Yavapai College, Arizona Vines and Wines, the Arizona Wine Growers Association, the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, Verde Valley Wine Trail, Willcox Wines, Southern Arizona Group Tour Planner.
Climate and Region
Believe it or not, wine grapes do not appreciate the sweet life. Vineyards planted in a rocky, inhospitable landscape produce more concentrated juice with a more complex flavor. The more grapes have to fight, the higher the chance that their fruit will yield a great wine. Any vintner will tell you that it’s the microclimate—that climatological alchemy of weather, soil, and temperature, that determines both the feasibility of a wine region and the qualities of any grape grown there. Growers generally look for warm days and cool nights with a certain ratio of sunlight to shade. Some of Arizona’s higher elevation zones, ranging between 3,800 to almost 6,000 feet, fit this bill to a T. The hot days and naturally chilly nights of the high altitude regions balance acidity and sweetness.
According to Ms. Woolsey, “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 five decades in the past.” Winegrowers are constantly experimenting with temperature manipulation like canopy management to provide shade on hot days. Currently, three regions in Arizona are growing grapes for wine: Sonoita in Santa Cruz County, Willcox in Cochise County, and the Verde Valley in Yavapai County.
Sonoita is the oldest region of this new enterprise, and the only official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Arizona. Relatively plentiful rainfall contributes to the area’s rolling grasslands, scrub oaks, and yucca stands. Once inhabited by vast cattle ranches, vineyards that produce red, white, and blush grapes have been creeping in since the 1970s. Expert vintners compare the soil of 20-mile stretch along Highway 83 to the Burgundy region of France—but the Sonoita Elgin area has a character all its own. Surrounded by the San Cayetano, Santa Rita, and Huachuca Mountains, the region is also a great place for scenic adventures, especially those on horseback.
Just off Interstate 10 north of southeastern Arizona’s Sulfur Springs Valley, the Willcox region produces reds, whites, sweet wines, and dessert wines. Grapes grown here are used in wineries all over the state. Syrah and Sangiovese are popular varietals cultivated in the soil rich with ash from ancient volcanoes. The soils and the climate created by the 4,300 to 4,500 feet elevation resemble the viticultural areas of both the Rhone Valley in France and Mondoza, Argentina. Tasting festivals are held twice each year at Railroad Park in historic Downtown Willcox, the location for other festivals such as Rex Allen Days and the birding event Wings Over Willcox.
The volcanic past of the Verde Valley and the drainage of the Verde River has created a mineralized, slightly alkaline soil just challenging enough to produce distinctive flavors in grapes. The 35-mile long, 714 square mile region produces over 100 varietals, including Cab Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Malvasia and a relatively unknown grape, Cab Pfeffer. Most vineyards are found in the Page Springs area about 100 miles north of Phoenix, but grapes also grow in Cottonwood, Jerome and Camp Verde. Already popular tourist destinations, Verde Valley towns have added tasting rooms to a growing list of attractions that includes popular state parks, antique shops, and more.
Locate tasting rooms and wineries in all three regions with the Arizona Wine Trails maps by the Arizona Wine Growers.