When 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.