Category Archives: The Winery

Kief-Joshua Vineyards

homelogoOn my jaunt through the Sonoita AVA in southern Arizona, I came across a budding young winery that shows potential.  I would not normally make that assertion without tasting the produce of the vineyards, but in the case of Kief-Joshua, that is not possible.

Kief Manning planted his first vines on “winery row” in 2005.  It takes three years for the vine to produce a commercial crop, thus the 2008 harvest, which will be released this fall, was the first on the estate.  To sustain themselves on the path toward 100% estate production, the winery purchases grapes and juice from California and Arizona.  They currently feature Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.  New plantings are progressing at an acre per year and the vineyard is expected to fully supply the winery’s grapes within a decade.  He has planted an eclcectic range of ten varieties: Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Reisling, Semillion and Viognier.

Kief has created a sustainable model for his vineyards – foregWinery KJoing the use of pesticides and herbicides.  He was trained in biodynamic viticulture in Australia, and he has adopted many of its principles.  He said he will never be able to put the term “biodynamic” on his labels because his estate cannot produce enough fertilizer for its needs.  Everything on an official biodynamic estate must come from the property.

I have been attracted to the idea of biodynamics because it emphasizes symbiotic relationships as a substitute for chemicals.  In the case of Kief-Joshua, they promote the presence of praying mantis, owls and hawks to control pests.  My favorite animal that they employ are the Baby Doll Sheep.  Full grown these mini-munchers stand two feet tall, too short to reach the grapes, but the perfect height to feed on weeds and grass.

Mini MuncherThe combination of thoughtful viticulture and well made wines (albeit from other sources) promises a bright future for Kief-Joshua.  I will be checking back in with them regularly.

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Sonoita AVA

Sonoita VineyardsWhen I left St. Louis I was intent on tearing my way across the country to hit the classic growing regions north of Los Angeles within five days of my departure.  Thankfully I realized on the road that this is a rare oppotunity to visit the regions that aren’t found on the shelves in Missouri.  Sonoita is near the Mexican border in Arizona, a little less than an hour southeast of Tucson.  For me it was another of the many names I’ve had to memorize over the years without thinking that I may go there one day and enjoy the wines.  There are at least eight producers in the area, but many are not open for tours and tastings during the weekdays.  If you find yourself on the way to Sonoita, I suggest making it a weekend trip.

Arizona seemed to be a curious place to grow grapes, particularly in the southern part of the state (there are some producers in the northern mountains near Sedona, but I did not get the chance to check them out) and as I drove through the sparse Tucson landscape I envisioned extreme viticulture akin to the conditions on Mt. Etna in Sicily.  As the interstate gave way to the two-lane highway, the road began to climb and I was back in mountain scenery as beautiful as I had experienced in New Mexico.  The elevation is responsible for cooler temperatures – mainly 80 degree days in the summer – and sufficient rainfall – an average of 29 inches per year.  Kief Manning of Kief-Joshua Vineyards named frost and hail as the most prominent threats to viticulture and Fran Lightly of Sonoita Vineyards mentioned significant damage to their Cabernet vines by deer feeding on the budding plant in spring.  The deer have good taste.  Sonoita Vineyards now has a seven-foot-tall fence lining their property.

In my research of the area I looked up Tucson on Wikipedia and found that they have a monsoon season from July until late August and often September.  I have read that southeast Asia would be a wonderful place to grow grapes if it were not for the excessive rain during the harvest.  Rain in the latter part of the growing season often leads to fungal diseases and diluted grape juice.  I was curious if this domestic monsoon had a negative effect on Sonoita.  Kief explained that the rains often provided a respite from late summer heat and that the humidity was a non-issue.  “The humidity levels often drop from 90% to less than 10% in a matter of minutes.”  I’ll be profiling Kief-Joshua in my next post.

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in the area.  It is a lovely property with over 40 acres planted.  I tasted seven wines – four dry and three sweet.  The two dry whites were a Colombard and a Sauvignon Blanc.  Both showed true varietal character, particularly the Sauvignon.  For the reds I enjoyed the proprietary blend called MeCaSa – Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.  It had a very complex nose and was a bit lighter bodied than I would normally expect from this blend, which is not something I’m prone to complain about.  The sweet wines were classic examples of the American style, though one did have a heavy dose of sulphur.  A Cabernet Sauvignon is available, but is not opened for the tastings.  They offer back vintages of the Cab to the 1980’s as well.  Fran has had the 1984 at the last two staff Christmas parties and has been impressed both times.  The current release is $40 and the 1984 is $100.  The lineup proved to me that Sonoita is capable of producing varietally correct wines that would fit right in with other examples from California.

My time in the region was brief, but I came away with a newfound respect for the produce of America’s lesser known wine sources.

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Gruet Winery

p4161730Gruet has the best reputation of any winery east of the coastal states, so it was a natural place for me to visit on the journey.  They were founded in the early 1980’s by a family from Champagne looking to create a sparkling wine in the New World.  They explored the classic regions like Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, but they saw potential in the high elevations of southern New Mexico.  The winery is located in Albuquerque, which is in the north-central part of the state, so the grapes are transported.  Over ninety percent of their production is dedicated to sparkling wine, which is available in 49 states (North Dakota being the lone exception).  The primary product is the Brut, and other sparklers include a rosé, a demi-sec, and various reserve bottlings from single vintages.  Only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used in the sparkling wines, and they make two still versions of each.

The tasting began with the still wines.  Both Chardonnays spend time in oak, but only the Barrel Select goes through malolactic fermentation.  The standard Chardonnay had pronounced acidity which gave my palate a much needed wake up call for the 10:30 AM tasting.  The Barrel Select was more complex and rounder in the mouth, which means that it didn’t stand out in any one place.  Conversely the Chardonnay lit up the back of my mouth with its higher acid levels.  The costs are $13.50 and $22 respectively; both wines are worth more than the price.

p4161737Malolactic fermentation is one of the winemaking mysteries that I hope to wrap my mind around by the conclusion of this adventure.  It is a process that uses bacteria to convert malic acid, which is a piquant, sometimes harsh acid into lactic acid, or milk acid, which is much softer.  The winemaker is able to control the degree to which this process occurs, but I am unsure how they are able to do so.  I have been told that every red wine undergoes malo, and a handful of whites, mainly Chardonnays, do as well.  The buttery charachteristics of Chardonnay are said to be the result of this process, but I have never smelled buttered popcorn in a red wine.

The Pinot Noir selections at Gruet are curious because they are the first red wines I’ve come across that claim to forego malolactic fermentation.  Pinots generally have a higher acid level than other reds, so they would be a good candidate for this experiment.  Like the Chardonnays, the Pinots were divided into a regular bottling and a Barrel Select.  Both had a captivating nose, the Barrel Select a bit more so, but both seemed thin on the palate.  Perhaps if I did not know of the lack of malo I would have been more receptive to them, but as it stood I saw a great deal of potential if the wine were made conventionally.

The last red was a Syrah, which is gaining acrage in New Mexico.  The 2006 vintage I tasted was from young vines so it lacked some the power of a typical Syrah, but that will change as the vines mature.  The climate seems natural for Syrah, so these may be the first great reds east of the Sierra Nevada.

The sparkling wines began with the Brut, then the Blanc de Blancs and the Blanc de Noirs, and finished with the Grand Rosé, the Gilbert Gruet Grande Reserve and the Demi-Sec.  The Brut was good as ever and is a steal at $14 per bottle.  It’s a great house sparkler.  I recall it being more expensive in St. Louis, but I’m not positive.

The standouts were the Grand Rosé and the Gilbert Gruet.  The rosé was super-complex and delicate.  The Gilbert Gruet was a powerful sparkler modeled after the style of Krug and Bollinger with fermentation in oak barrels.  At $32 and $46 respectively, they provide every penny’s worth of wine.

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