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Elaine Chukan Brown: ‘In conventional terms, Arizona seems an unlikely place for vines’

Sonoita Vineyards, Elgin, Arizona.

Sonoita Creek carves through the basin, laying down terraces of vegetation – shrubs of acacia, mesquite, yucca, barrel cactus and flowering ocotillo. To the south, a panorama opens, the horizon unimpeded by mountains until the other side of the Arizona-Mexico border. Sonoita, with its 800 residents, sits an hour south of the city of Tucson. The basin rises above 1,370m, with the surrounding mountains even higher.

Sonoita is the birthplace of Arizona wine. Missionaries settled to the south, bringing vines by the late-1700s, if not earlier. In the modern era, the first vineyards were established in the 1970s. Soil scientist and wine lover Dr Gordon Dutt noticed the pH and calcium content of the state’s soils resemble those of Burgundy, so he began planting vineyards on the eastern side of the Sonoita basin in the village of Elgin.

Within a few years, Dutt was making wine, and neighbouring vineyards followed. In 1984, Sonoita became one of the nation’s early AVAs. By the 1990s, wines of Sonoita were receiving national recognition and being poured at the White House.

With its success, growers began expanding into other parts of Arizona. In the 2000s, vineyards moved east to Willcox and north into Verde Valley, both high-elevation growing regions. Willcox affords relatively even temperatures and plenty of land with the greatest diversity of grape varieties, becoming an AVA in 2016. In north-central Arizona, the Verde Valley is dominated by the state’s largest river system – it has enough water to dry farm but competes with ranchers for land. It became an AVA in 2021.

Arizona’s early vineyards were planted to obvious contenders – Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah among them. But the unique growing conditions forced vintners to rethink expectations. What do you grow in a region that doesn’t resemble any other?

In conventional terms, Arizona seems an unlikely place for vines. People often imagine merely an arid desert, surely not a growing region for quality wine. But the range of elevations and textural landscape means a plethora of microclimates. Canyons and valleys create pockets of cold. Hail can hit highlands in spring or summer. Winds cover the lowlands. Autumn monsoons rush in from the south. Cold and rain prove the greatest challenges.

Today, the best vintners produce wine that speaks to the dusty, savoury aromatics of the Arizona desert: Autumn Sage, Caduceus, Callaghan, Dos Cabezas, Los Milics, Merkin, Rune, Saeculum Cellars and Sand Reckoner principal among them.

Though inspired by a love of Europe, producers have been forced to let go of the need to emulate Old World regions and instead create a new paradigm. From them, a new host of varieties has emerged. Many bud late to avoid spring frost and ripen early to escape variable weather. They handle calcareous soils and autumn rain. Petit Manseng, made as dry table wine, is savoury, thirst-quenching and satisfying. Malvasia, with its exuberant aromatics, finds palate tension in calcareous soils. Clairette Blanche, Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc are exciting in a blend. Aglianico, Graciano, Tannat, Tempranillo and Vranac rise as dominant reds.

Arizona’s winemaking within variable weather and disordered seasons gives insight into the challenges of climate change elsewhere. The most successful wineries are willing to experiment, seeking to create wines responsive to the region’s distinctive conditions.

The requirement for problem-solving means breaking out of restrictive mindsets taken from traditional wine regions – those established in an era of more consistent growing conditions that no longer exist. It’s an example built from a challenge, but also a reminder – we can drink fine wine in climate change if we rise to meet it.

In my glass this month

In northeast Italy, Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi founded Ronchi di Cialla in the 1970s, committed to producing wines that represent the history of their region. In the process, they hunted abandoned vines in the hills of Friuli and single-handedly rescued Schioppettino from extinction. Their Schioppettino di Cialla remains one of my favourite wines of the Friuli Colli Orientali. The 2016 offers refreshing and savoury flavours, glittering tension and a long, palate-stimulating finish (US$53-$65 Cool Wine & Spirits, Gary’s, Wine Exchange).

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