Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B

3 thoughts on “Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

  1. Great review thank you! I look forward to further reports when you head south to Sonoita and Willcox. One fun fact check I would toss to you is that Arizona has some Vineyards/Wineries at 5000ft+ in Sonoita and Wilcox. Thnaks agian and keep traveling and tasting!

      • Autocorrect – a blessing and a curse. Thanks for the feedback John. I definitely want to get down to the areas you mention, and if I can visit a vineyard that’s over 5000 feet that would be incredible. I get out that way one or twice a year so it’s bound to happen at some point. In the meantime, wish I could be rowing with you guys in Arizona instead of out on the cold Potomac…

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