QUESTION #5: “How significant do you think vintage variation is in Arizona? Please elaborate with examples.”
So far I don’t have the experience you do in this regard (Kent); I can only speculate. Until I’ve had access to the same vineyard manager and stuck to the same programs year after year, I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. You or Todd, or Rod Keeling would probably have a better grasp on that.
The dry summer years are usually the best, however with only eight seasons under my belt, that’s a tough one to feel confident about. I would say that ‘06 and ‘08 were lesser years than ‘07 and ‘09, and the monsoon rain was the primary difference.
I have only worked one vintage with Arizona fruit so I am not an expert on this by any means. From tasting, I think the wines are improving yearly, in general. Bad vintages are marked by heavy frosts, hail and wildfires for me thus far.
Vintage variation is absolutely significant because of all the variables that change from year to year. The very fact that we have such unpredictable weather in the form of late spring frosts, monsoons, hail and extreme winds make vintage variation significant. In 2008, we saw heavy/consistent rains from increased monsoon activity that made for challenges with bunch rot and inadequate physiological ripening. In 2009, grapes got severely frosted and we lost significant portion of our crop, which concentrated the fruit, but there wasn’t as much of it. In 2010, it was quite perfect in that it was warm and not quite as wet, so we saw conditions that were conducive to physiological ripeness and depth of flavors without high alcohols.
Our climate is extreme. Our growing seasons are extremely variable. If we are doing our job, our wines will reflect that and tell that story. Here’s a gross example using the wine we make called El Campo which is sourced from our Pronghorn Vineyard in Sonoita. This wine is a blend of all of the grapes we grow out there. In years where there is late spring frost, there will be more Mourvedre in the blend than Tempranillo and Petit Verdot – this will change the character of the wine, but it will tell that story. There are finer examples too. When we used to make Pinot Gris, the years where we were able to pick earlier without threat of monsoon moisture, we could produce wines that showed elegance, pear flavors and minerality. In years where Pinot Gris was ripening during the monsoon rains, we would end up with fatter wines with tropical fruit and honeyed character.
It’s quite significant. The factors that I think contribute most are spring frost, as well as wind, summer monsoon moisture and August heat spikes. A late spring frost can lower yields, but also contribute to the concentration of the grapes. In 2011, we had strong, drying spring winds that continued into early summer, resulting in grapes with thicker skins and more tannin. The summer monsoon season is highly variable and can have a major effect on the occurrence and severity of rot. It turns out that 2012 was an excellent year for Zinfandel thanks to a moderate and early monsoon. Late season heat spikes also have a large impact on the fruit quality with moderate seasons contributing to great aromatic intensity, acidity and color.
Yes, vintage variations for Arizona wines are significant, and frankly, I think it show off our weather; meaning that everything for wine starts in the vineyard. All wine lovers want the predictability of one’s favorite wines to be good from one year to the next; it’s the onus of the winemaker to make that happen. Not every Arizona harvest is ‘the best.’ Given the winemaker, good solid wines can be produced each year. But with exceptional growing seasons, exceptional wines can be made.
Examples: 2010 was a bountiful year for our harvest. We had really good wines come out of that year. 2011? Exceptional year. Not as bountiful, but the wines were higher quality.
QUESTION #6: “How do you see Arizona wines in relation to other wine-growing areas of the world?”
It feels like we’re still infants in many respects. Although there have been growers here for decades, we as a region, are still searching for a collective identity. I can usually, sort of, tell a Callaghan wine from a Dos Cabezas wine from an Arizona Stronghold Vineyard wine: Solid, consistent winemaking across the board. Although it’s hard to narrow down a few sound bites on our region, I’ll take a stab. Australia, Napa and Paso Robles seem to be jammy and huge, and have less natural acidic structure. The vines don’t struggle as much as ours. We tend to release our wines young, but I suspect that if we followed more closely in the footsteps of the European winemaking tradition, we would find more in common there than in California. These are, of course, generalizations.
After our trip in February 2012 to South Australia, I think we are a warmer place, ideal for a riper style. Some may disagree and those that make an early, lighter style in Arizona have had great success. However, when I asked the question about the ripe-style at Mollydooker in McLaren Vale, the answer was “because we can.” Well, so can we in Arizona.
As far as terroir, we are similar to southern Spain, southwestern France, southern Italy, northern Africa, Mendoza, Argentina, and the Barossa in Australia.
As far as quality, I see Arizona beginning to hold its own with some of the best winegrowing areas in the world. There have been a few special people doing great things in this state for many years, but it hasn’t been until recently that a small influx of people are also figuring out more of the various nuances of Arizona grape growing and winemaking that will distinguish, separate and elevate Arizona as a serious wine region.
I think Arizona wines are at a level of quality that is in-line with the rest of the great winegrowing regions of the world. At its best, Arizona wines are unique expressions of this place. If we are doing our job, we will produce wines that will be impossible to replicate outside of this state; Arizona wines that Oregonians and Burgundians would have just as hard of a time imitating, as we would their Pinot Noirs. Ideally, any wine list or wine shop that offers quality wines from places like Alsace, Priorat or Paso Robles will feel it important to offer Arizona wines.
Arizona wines definitely have the potential to be world-class. The have great fruit character but also supporting notes of earth, spice and minerality. They have more in common with Spanish, southern French or Italian regions than California, for example. I also see similarities to some wines coming out of Argentina.
Toe-to-toe, in the Sonita/Elgin region we’re blazing trails on high-elevation vineyards. Only a few other regions of the world have vineyards at 5,000 ft. The Elgin terroir has a definite influence on our wines. With its higher UV index, arid dry growing season and constant breezy-to-windy conditions, the vines produce naturally robust fruit.