Southern Arizona wineries flourish despite the climate

A row of Graciano grapes at the Callaghan Vineyard courtesy of winery owner, Kent Callaghan
A row of Graciano grapes at the Callaghan Vineyard courtesy of winery owner, Courtesy of Kent Callaghan

Southern Arizona’s climate seems like an unlikely choice for a winery. But in the Sonoita area, soil has tested nearly equal in quality to the soil in Burgundy, France — wine capital of the world.  

In 1973, Gordon Dutt, a soils and agricultural scientist, established the first experimental vineyard within the Sonoita and Elgin regions of Southern Arizona.

“Gordon wasn’t sure what to expect, but discovered the soil had a 99 percent match to soils in Burgundy,” said Lori Reynolds, head winemaker and general manager of Sonoita Vineyards.

According to Reynolds, after five years of growing the grapes and an additional 18 months of aging, the completed tastings “blew every expectation out of the water.”

Dutt relates much of the success primarily to the soil that produces both red and white grapes rich in color and acidity.

Dutt opened Sonoita Vineyard in 1983, which became the first vineyard in the Sonoita and Elgin area.

The Sonoita Vineyard began with an annual production of 300 gallons and now produces over 9,000 gallons annually, or about 4,500 cases. To this day, Sonoita Vineyard is the oldest existing vineyard in the state of Arizona.

“The Southern Arizona wine industry has boomed,” Reynolds said. “Come November there will be 14 wineries in this area alone.” In 2006, there were only three.

Wine makers are discovering there is much to be desired about the area other than the soil. According to Reynolds, the weather is exceptional for growing grapes. Most of the Sonoita area is a basin surrounded by hills and mountains. The location offers heavy cloud cover, ideal for shielding vineyards from the Arizona heat.

“We have incredible weather here despite what people may think,” Reynolds said. “Not all of Southern Arizona is dry desert.” According to Reynolds, the Sonoita basin will reach 98 degrees for a summer high.

Where soil is not a concern, wineries in the area do face other obstacles. Javelina, deer and ravens can ravage a harvest, but most winemakers have placed high fences around their properties and they also have dogs to ward off most of the imposing wildlife.

Monsoon rains can also be unpredictable and can potentially flood the fields. Usually the area will receive 17-20 inches of rainfall annually. However, some years there can be considerably more or less than the expected amount, depending on monsoon season.

“Our vineyard is terraced to utilize the rain for irrigation purposes,” Reynolds said. Most of the rainfall can be filtered into a drip irrigation system for the entire vineyard.

Rainfall patterns can affect what grapes can be grown for different wines. Trial and error has allowed winemakers to experiment with what can handle the weather and what can’t.

According to Reynolds, French, Spanish and Italian varietals flourish with the weather patterns. German varietals, which require cooler temperatures, such as Riesling, don’t fare the weather nearly as well.

“This Arizona Cabernet Sauvignon is one of our most popular,” said Jeff Yost, the in-house wine tasting server at Sonoita Vineyards. “It’s smooth and velvety with little tastes of chocolate that will jump out at you.” The Cabernet is one of 15 wines currently on the tasting menu.

“It’s remarkable how much flavor you can extract from the different grapes,” said Kent Callaghan, owner of Callaghan Vineyards. “Something that may not grow at our vineyard will grow well on other people’s property.”

 According to Callaghan, the hilly Sonoita basin has extreme fluctuations in elevation. Where Sonoita Vineyards sits at 5,000 feet in elevation, Callaghan Vineyards sits at 4,750 feet. This can create large differences in temperature and rainfall.

Of the 2,000 cases produced annually, Callaghan Vineyard produces mainly French varietals from their soil.

“It’s insane, but the vineyard down the road is only 20 feet lower in elevation but can be 10 degrees cooler,” Callaghan said. Weather and elevation determinants are consistently changing the wine produced in the area.

“It keeps the wine industry here flexible,” Callaghan said. “It’s interesting always being able to produce something new and have different selections.”

Kianna Gardner is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kiannagardner@email.arizona.edu

Click here for high-resolution photos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.