Beer, Wine and Spirits: Wines of Arizona

Wines of Arizona
Photo credit: Brian Preston.
Posted on: June 20, 2019

In early May I spent a week in Phoenix, Arizona, to see that part of the American Southwest. The Sedona Desert near Scottsdale just north of Phoenix was spectacular with all the spring flowers and colours and seeing the famous big Saguaro cactus in full bloom (their State flower) was quite special. The day drive north to the Grand Canyon saw us going from an altitude of 1086′ above sea level in Phoenix to about 7000′ at Grand Canyon. We went from the Sonoran and Sedona Desert through the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the world and grasslands to the grandeur of the Canyon and high country.

Spanish Jesuit missionaries planted grapevines in Arizona in the 16th century to make wine for religious purposes. Now there now are over 110 wineries and vineyards in three major regions of Arizona consisting of Verde Valley north of Phoenix near Sedona; Sonoita south of Tuscon; and Willcox east of Tucson which produces 74% of the wine grapes grown in the state including Petite Syrah, Malvasia Bianca, Sangiovese, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Viognier.  Arizona is very good at some of the Spanish, Italian and Southern French Rhone varietals sharing similar soils and warmer climate.

Salvatore Vineyards is named after winemaker Jason Domanico’s grandfather, and he produces quality small batch wines. The Domanico family roots are in Sicily and Calabria, Italy. The crest on the bottle is a combination of both of those regions. The woman’s face with the three legs is from the Sicilian crest and they replaced the traditional wheat stalks around her face with grape clusters. The two crosses are from the crest of Calabria.

Salvatore does a decent but lighter Nebbiolo on French oak for 2 years (from which Amarone is made in Italy) with arose/perfume aroma and food friendly acidity and dark fruit on the finish. Tasting a flight of these wines with Kelly Harter in their wine bar in Old Towne Scottsdale, I was pleasantly surprised that they are in a drier style preferred by Canadians and Europeans alike, and I am now convinced that the American wine palate is becoming more sophisticated as I travel and taste across the United States. The 2014 Cerca is their Aglianico red blend that spent 1 year on French oak: 44% Aglianico, 44% Syrah, 12% Merlot giving an aroma of anise, tar and coffee with a taste profile of ripe dark fruits with balanced tannin and acidity. I find that US wineries are finally getting away from the sweet wines of old like White Zinfandel and Mogen David concord red wine! Salvatore medal winners in California and Arizona wine competitions in 2018 include their 2016 Malvasia Bianca, 2016 Chardonnay, 2014 Sangiovese, and their 2014 Cerca as best red blend.

Another one of 5 wine bars in Scottsdale within walking distance of each other that I particularly liked was Aridus Wine Company, a play on the Latin word arid, meaning dry and a tribute to the desert setting near Willcox as well. Zack gave us the tasting flight and I chose the 2016 Malvasia Bianca, winner of 3 out-of state wine competitions in 2018. It was highly aromatic with orange blossom, ginger, and exotic spices on the palate, finishing with juicy pear, tangerine, cardamom and coriander. Then it was their 2016 Viognier, light bodied nose of stone fruit and toffee with a minerality freshness, almost medium bodied and stone fruit taste and clean finish – good effort! Then into the reds starting with their unique 2016 Graciano, 2018 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition winner exhibiting bold aromas of fresh ripe bramble, black pepper, and graphite. The flavors included both cassis and sweet ripe bramble and black cherries, warm spices, and black pepper on a balanced medium bodied frame of tannins and fruit acidity, making this an approachable wine for drinking now or ageing up to five years. The 2016 Petite Syrah was opaque with aromas of cassis, blackberries and a hint of violet bolstered by fresh flavors of charred blackberry, maraschino cherry and Christmas spice (clove). It tasted of savory bay leaf, wet earth, leather, with pepper dominating the palate. I finished with the 2016 Cabernet Franc where they sourced the grapes from New Mexico. It was opaque with aromas of blackberry, pepper replayed on the palate as ripe, dark berry fruit. The tannin was quite present but integrated in this almost full bodied beautiful wine. The unique feature was the lack of pencil shavings aroma you get on many Canadian Cab Francs and some of the Loire Valley, France versions.

So if you get to Arizona, be ready for some really good wines in addition to the many local craft breweries that are popping up too. A shout out goes to Uncle Bear’s Brewery in Gilbert that had free tastings in the grocery store. Will we see this in Ontario soon? There is Tio Mexican Lager, Mandarin Wheat, Wolfhound Irish Red Ale, Fry’s Classic Porter (a nod to their local sponsor Fry’s Food Stores), and to finish, Ocean Beach West Coast Style IPA, brewed with domestic hops and malt, and more hops creating a citrusy/floral IPA that was big but not over the top as some Hop Heads make it!

Column by Brian Preston

The Travelling Sommelier