Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

Two Great Wines from the Famous Land of Tomatoes

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So it turns out wine from the heel of Italy is pretty good. Specifically, San Marzano wine. I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about wine from this part of Italy, this part being Puglia. When I hear Puglia, my mind goes back to Mario Batali’s old (and best) Food Network show, Molto Mario. My first culinary love was Italian food, and in my formidable teenage years I learned through the show the concept of what I can call “regionality,” which effectively means that how and what people cook varies by where it’s done. If this sounds a bit like terroir, that’s not far off, although it encompasses a bit more: in addition to how differences in land and climate affect the taste of the ingredients, it also includes methodology traditions, ingredient combinations, religious influences, past conqueror(s) influence, and more. One could make a case that terroir can encompass all of this as well, but I think that goes beyond the spirit of terroir’s focus on non-human elements.

Regardless, when I think of Pulgia and San Marzano, I think about food and the latter’s renowned tomatoes (though don’t let the grocery store packaging fool you). Until now, until these Talo wines. I tasted them over two nights, and had a neighbor over to try them on the second. Not a wino, he asked me to tell him about the wines and I found myself going down the rabbit hole of trying to explain the terroir of certain wines from Southern Italy and Greece, which I flippantly referred to as “Med wines,” a terrible term that doesn’t actually exist outside this world of one because it also applies to wines from, say, Israel, that offer little in similarity. In my mind, Med wines are driven by a peppery spice and loam-driven minerality that I can pick out of any assembly of wines from around the globe. Not having tasted San Marzano wine before, I could’ve called Med wine in a blind tasting but in a million years would never have placed them in the land of the world’s most famous tomatoes.

And what a pleasant surprise, because these are uniquely expressive and approachable wines that bring that “Med wine” edge that I’ve always loved and have never spent enough time getting to know. I’ll be reviewing a trio of whites from Greece in an upcoming post, and these two wines have made me a little more excited to do that. I had a lot of fun with these, reviewing them separately and then going back and forth identifying differences and themes.

On quality and approachability, they are comparable. Both benefit from an hour or so of decanting. Their textures suggest the same warm, dry climate, and they both deliver that peppery-loam energy I noted earlier. Beyond that, we’re talking about distinctly different wines that can still be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone liking either. That is to say, if you get to try one and like it, definitely seek out the other. Or better yet, just get both and drink them together.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Malvasia Nera, made from the Malvasia grape, is the more fruit forward of the two. It’s dark, brutish nose bursts with bruised cherries, crushed blackberries, blood orange, tar, violet and crushed rocks. The palate is full bodied with saturated grainy tannin that never seem to settle in one place. The juicy, bright acidity keeps the wine from developing a cloying sensation, which is an important counter balance to the sweet fruit that comes in waves of boysenberry, strawberry, blueberry, Acai and bewildering big dose of grapefruit that I could never get over, or stop appreciating. There are streaks of loam, saline and sweet tobacco leaf as well. Overall, it’s a brilliantly unusual package of aromas, flavors and textures. I’m giving it 89 points with a value rating of A.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Negroamaro, made from the Negroamaro grape which I’m not sure I’ve had previously, is also a real treat and my preference of the two if I’m forced to pick. The fruit is a bit more reserved than the Malvasia Nera, which allows more savoriness to come through. The nose is all about minerality and Earthiness, offering seasoned leather, tar, wet Earth, granite, Evergreen, saline and sour cherry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with lush, juicy acidity that really carries the flavors and round, fine grained tannin that keep things well-framed. The flavors strike an almost-elegant tone. The fruit is sweeter on the palate than the nose, boasting cherry concentrate and huge hits of black and red currants. Dusty mocha, loam, graphite and bright, sweet orange juice come through as well. I suspect this one might improve with a year of aging, but decant it for an hour and it won’t matter. This one deserves 90 points and an A value rating.

Since we’re less than a week out from Thanksgiving, I’ll answer the question: yes, these would work well for your feast. They also work well on their own, and I can imagine them pairing nicely with a big range of foods, even including heartier seafood. At roughly $15 each, they are some of the more interesting and unusual wines you’ll find in that price range. I’ll put it succinctly: there’s good reason to find and try these wines.

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