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

Aaron on Aaron on Paso Robles

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30-35 Degree Slopes in Paso Robles. Picture credit: 100% lifted from Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Welcome to 2018, Good Vitis style! I’m very excited to kick the new year off with my favorite title of any post thus far. When I received a collection of samples from Paso Robles and pulled out a bottle of Aaron Wines, I thought it might be a practical – and very endearing – joke by the PR firm. I looked up the winery and realized it was no joke, and then emailed the firm and asked for an interview with the owner and winemaker, Aaron Jackson. A few weeks later I sampled the wines, confirming their quality and appeal, and a few weeks after that we were on the phone, confirming my suspicion that Aaron was a wine lover’s winemaker.

The lineup at Aaron Wines is strongly weighted towards petit sirah. When I asked Aaron why he chose to focus on that varietal, he said it was for the same reason that I felt motivated to ask the question: “Because you had a reason to ask “why petit sirah?” and I had to have an interesting answer. If you asked winery owners in Napa why they made cabernet, the honest answer would be that “it’s most popular and what people want, and I want to make what people want.” With real inquisitive wine people, there are questions. Petit sirah is undiscovered and there are still things to discover.” Aaron Wines is sixteen years old, but he’s still trying to discover. That’s a wine lover’s winemaker.

Aaron Jackson got into the wine business in Paso Robles, near where he grew up, as a teenage in the late 1990s as a summer vineyard hand. At that time, Aaron describes Paso as going through an identity crisis in which the industry was trying to emulate Napa Valley, making predominantly red Bordeaux varietals and chardonnay because that is what people bought. The problem, though, was that when consumers thought about California cabernet, merlot or chardonnay, they thought Napa, not Paso, and so a few wineries began searching for other varietals to begin carving out a niche in the market.

However, shifts in varietal plantings are slow, long changes due to the significant monetary risk of introducing something completely different into the market and the timeline of (re)planting vineyards. And so, well into the 2000s, it was the Bordeaux varietals that remained the bulk of Paso’s wines. As Aaron worked his way through several wineries, he become quite adept at dealing with these varietals, though they didn’t ring authentic to the region to him.

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Aaron (Author) tasting Aaron (Jackson) Wines

“It’s a really authentic region and people,” Aaron said. Comparing Paso to Napa, he said Paso is “like good barbecue, it’s not white table cloth. Winemakers spend time on tractors; I’ve never worn a polo shirt or button up to work.” Most interesting to me, he boasted about how the fluid narrative of Paso as a wine region is driving innovation. “The wines are unique and speak to consumers who like big, powerful wines. Within [more] established regions there’s a high degree of rigidity; you can’t go into Napa, make a red that isn’t based on cabernet or merlot, and know you’re going to survive. Russian River grenache? That’s a risk. There are big waves going against you. In Paso there’s still experimentation, a lot of energy and exciting wine, and really cool people.”

Aaron wasn’t the only to have this observation that emulating Napa wasn’t the route Paso should be pursuing, however. Thanks in large part to efforts like the partnership between California’s Haas family and France’s Chateau de Beaucastel called Tablas Creek Winery, a few people in Paso began to embrace the varietals of the Rhone Valley, namely syrah, grenache and mourvedre. He recalled, “over time you saw developments and interesting wines [being made in Paso] as people wrapped their head around those varietals. With Rhone varietals they had international benchmarks [to compare quality], but not really any domestic ones, so in that sense they were writing the book for American Rhones at the time.” It was exciting because it was new.

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Harvest 2017. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

However, when Aaron decided to open his own winery, the Rhone varietals weren’t exciting him enough to be his impetus because at that point they were common, even if they hadn’t replaced cabernet and merlot as the standard of Paso Robles. Aaron was motivated by a desire to “bend the status quo.” He was “looking for my own way to put my fingerprint on the region” and so, driven by a particularly fond memory, he chose petit sirah as the cornerstone of Aaron Wines.

When he worked at Four Vines Winery, Aaron had a chance to make a wine from old vine petit sirah. “It blew me away, it was incredible, and no one was making it,” he said. “Benchmarking the wine was difficult [because] the thing about petit sirah is that there’s no benchmark anywhere. Trying to make Chateauneuf de Pape or Cotes de Rhone in Paso, you can do that [because you have these well-established regions to learn from and their name recognition to trade on]. With petit sirah, it’s uncharted territory.” He saw it as “a huge opportunity to do what I wanted, to make my own mark.”

Aaron began by meeting growers, forming relationships and using his skills of persuasion to talk them into planting petit sirah in areas where he hoped to source grapes. Though he still sources all his fruit, he would like to have some estate fruit eventually. In the meantime, he continues to fine tune every year what he wants for each site as the climate changes in ways requiring significant modifications. For example, the common preference for southern facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere is no longer true, Aaron says, at least in Paso where average temperatures have been rising dramatically each year. Now, rather than seeking out the heat of southern facing slopes, there’s a need to find less exposure to the hot sun, and the preferred exposure has become northern.

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New Mourvedre Plantings. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Having never been to Paso myself, and with little exposure to its wines, I asked Aaron to describe it for me and explain why it’s a great place to grow vitis vinifera. He began by comparing it to the geography of Spain’s Priorat, describing it as featuring “incredibly steep hills with vines clinging to the side of hills. You can’t drive through it and say the wines are not going to be unique. You look at the vineyards and you just know they will be [unqiue].” Driving into Paso Robles from the coast, it takes less than three minutes after you’ve lost sight of the ocean and you’ve entered these steep hills with white soil. Terroir-wise, “it looks different; every aspect – the soil, orientation, etc. – is extremely varied.”

Aaron’s wines offer uniqueness as well, even within Paso. Aaron Wines is just him and one full time employee, so there is a personal touch on every detail of ever wine; “no big marketing campaign, no smoke and mirrors” used to sell wine. “Everything is supposed to tell an authentic story.” Each named blend has a genesis story. Sand and Stone, for example, came from his desire to make a grenache-heavy wine. In Paso, there wasn’t a lot of grenache being made in the mid-2000s when Aaron took a brief break from California to study enology in Australia. Living in Adelaide, Aaron was exposed to the old vine Grenache grown in the sand dunes of Mclaren Vale that blew him away (“if you drove your car into the vineyards you would get stuck in the sand”). Upon his return, he went to work at Saxum, famous for its grenache, where it was grown in limestone. So, when it came time to make his own, he combined the sand of Australia with the stone of Paso to produce Sand and Stone. “I don’t want to be corny, but I do want people to see what we’re doing is real and legitimate and understand why we make our wines the way we do.”

Aaron S&S

Speaking of his wine, it’s quite good. The 2014 Sand and Stone (44% petite sirah, 43% grenache, 13% syrah) has a hedonistic nose that, while boasting concentrated aromas of dark plum, black currant and blackberry, isn’t fruit-driven. Rather, it’s the moist Earth, dung, loam, fungus and white pepper that give it a nose that is surprisingly mature for its age. The body is blessed with dense but linear and refined tannin. There’s just a tick of an alcohol that’s more spicy than boozy in affect. The acid is ripe and drives juicy red, blue and black fruit, especially Acai and Pomegranate. There is complementary lilac, violet, graphite and orange rind. It finishes with a bit of bacon. It’s bright and refreshing now, but I’d suggest giving it at least 2-3 years to further develop, though it will do well for a good deal longer than that. 91 points, value B.

Having recently done a library tasting of his own wines, I asked Aaron about the experience he had with the aging curve of them. He mentioned that the 2002 vintage (his first) is still very much alive but on its downward slide, while the 2003 is drinking nicely, with tons of fruit still left, but has probably peaked. The 2006 was the best of the line-up. While the wines do have immediate appeal, Aaron believes some can be two-decade wines.

Aaron Citizen

The wine I’d be most interested in cellaring is the 2014 Citizen (53% petite sirah, 47% syrah), whose nose is still a bit reticent and requires a lot of aeration to coax out strawberry, iodine and dense smoke. The palate is lush and polished on entry, while the body is medium in stature and boasts crisp acid. On the flavor front it delivers a decidedly Earthy profile with iodine, fatback, thyme, cherry, blackberry and huckleberry. The finish brings in saline and rosewater. I believe it will benefit with five years of cellaring and could be one of those two-decade wines Aaron referenced. 92 points, value B+.

Aaron told me that the tannins on the wines I tasted are reserved compared to the older school Paso style, and that is purposefully done so they can be approachable upon release (I’ve read that something like fewer than 2% of wine sold in America is aged). Aaron commented that only in the last decade have Paso winemakers learned they should trim their yields and pick earlier to tame tannins. Paso is full of limestone, which Aaron called a “builder of acid.” This is evident in his wines, which all delivered higher doses of acid that I wasn’t expecting, but was happy to find. In fact, Aaron sources from one particular site that is relatively low in acid development in order to blend it to tame the acid on some of his wines as well.

Aaron Trespasser

The 2014 Trespasser (61% petite sirah, 27% mourvèdre, 7% syrah, 5% grenache) was the most acidic of the flight for me. The nose is quiet but pretty, with aromas of lilac, lavender, scorched Earth, cherry juice and crushed SweeTart. The surprisingly plush and buoyant palate offers a cornucopia of Acai, pomegranate, blackberry, rose petal, tar, smoke, pepper and sage, while it finishes with saline and bacon. 92 points, value B+.

Aaron PS

Finally, we come to Aaron’s signature grape, and he doesn’t disappoint. The 2014 Petit Sirah (100%) offers a particularly high-toned nose of plum, maraschino cherry and something (?) stewed. The full body has an almost creamy feel as the tannins are impressively managed. The wonderful fruit is all over the place: cherry, blackberry, Acai, pomegranate, apricot and orange. There is also chocolate covered rose petals, lavender and a slightly peppery kick. The integration, balance and structure of this wine are all quite impressive. A beast of a wine, it knows how to be graceful. This is impressive winemaking. 93 points, value A.

I hope someday to visit Paso Robles. Between Aaron Wines and the other samples I received from the region, which will be reviewed in a future post, I’d like to experience more. For those searching out exciting big-styled wines, Paso is a great place to begin.