Touring northern Arizona’s wine country

Drawing oenophiles to the American Southwest, a counter intuitive region for vineyards.

There are nearly 40 wineries in Arizona, a surprising fact if you do not know that a desert climate is ideal for the crop. In fact, for vineyards in the north of the state, the biggest threat is frost, not the dry heat.

Related slideshow: Along Arizona’s wine trail

Locals say wine has been made in the state for more than a century. Vintners in the 1870s sold hooch to miners, and again during Prohibition, when bootleggers here ran wine into Los Angeles under the cover of night.

Sonoita Vineyards, south of Tucson, was the first modern winery to open in Arizona, more than 30 years ago. Since then a steady stream of oenophiles and entrepreneurs have been setting up shop, trying their hand at the craft.

Viticulture is more recently on the rise in the Verde Valley, below Flagstaff in northern Arizona. The region is fertile ground for wine enthusiasts willing to take a chance on the unexpected. In the past decade, more than a dozen vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms have sprung up in the picturesque valley encompassing the red rocks of Sedona to the west and the historic mining town cum artist’s enclave of Jerome to the east.

Every local winemaker will tell you it is a mistake to try to compare wines from this region to anywhere else. “Arizona wines, taste like Arizona wine,” is a common refrain. But vintners here describe their wines as younger and more adventurous than their California cousins to the west. And the taste is quickly catching on. Wines produced from the Verde Valley have already won accolades, and demand is on the rise for the flavours of the desert.

Northern Arizona’s wineries are relatively near to each other, along a wine trail easily manageable in a weekend. Most are open daily and tastings run from $5 to $10 per person.

Booking a tour is one way to sample the offerings. You can hop on the old railway train, and forgo the hassle of driving. Or combine kayaking with wine tasting with Sedona adventure tours.

As the young vineyards find their way, there is a perceptible influence from California’s famous wine country, especially from the Paso Robles region of the central coast. Rhone varietals fare especially well in Northern Arizona’s mineral rich volcanic soil, and the Verde River and Oak Creek, which run year-round, keep the area from getting unbearably dry.

Most wineries here offer some combination of California and Arizona grapes in their wines, although many also make 100% Arizona wines.

Two local wine makers, Eric Glomski, who owns Page Springs Vineyards and Cellars, and Maynard Keenan,who owns Caduceus Cellars but is more famous for being the lead singer of the rock band Tool, joined forces and created the Arizona Stronghold label, which has made quite a splash in the local wine scene. Situated along Main Street in Cottonwood, the Stronghold Wine tasting room has a lively neighbourhood feel.

Page Springs is a beautiful and inviting vineyard that produces some stunning Rhone-style wines. The 2009 Vino De La Familia Blanca, made from 100% Arizona-grown Malvasia Bianca, a Mediterranean varietal of grape, is an unusual and delicious vintage. Its lightness and crispness, with gorgeous tropical fruit aromas, is perfect for sipping on the tasting room balcony overlooking Oak Creek and the vines below. For more bliss, book a massage in the vineyard.

Across the road is Javelina Leap Vineyards and Winery, named for the wild boar-like animals that roam the Arizona desert. Opened by Rod Snapp 12 years ago, this pocket sized 10-acre vineyard is already winning awards and earning good press for its big, bold red wines.

Keenan and his label Caduceus Cellars brought some star power to Arizona wine making. His many fans have followed him into the desert and his wines, influenced by Glomski, have earned him some new ones as well. The stylish Caduceus tasting room, perched up in the old mountain mining town of Jerome, once known as “the wickedest town in the West”, encompasses the mixture of frontier grit and the artisan creativity that draws so many to the former ghost town.

Alcantara Vineyards, a welcoming family owned establishment, has a Tuscan feel to it. Its nearly 90 acres of relatively young vines are beginning to produce some delicious wines. Alcantara’s 2008 Zinfandel stood out from the rest for its surprising smoothness and richness, with lovely dark fruit influences.

A 2010 documentary featuring Keenan and Glomski, Blood into Wine, details how the perceptions of the region are a unique challenge to making wine in Arizona. And its overcoming that perception that makes touring the vineyards and wineries tucked in along the Northern Arizona wine trail a chance to explore a new frontier in wine making and tasting.

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