Thursday, February 15, 2024

Revisiting the exciting wines of Southern Arizona

Sunrise on a Superstitions Mountains ridgeline (Dec. 2023)
I’ve been visiting Arizona once or twice a year since 2010, and I’m barely scratching the surface. As an avid outdoors lover, there’s just so much to do. And I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the diverse and rather vast winemaking culture. Since I started paying attention, things have gotten even more dynamic and exciting.

I’m a huge fan of producers like Page Springs Cellars, which was the first vineyard I visited, located in the Verde Valley south of Sedona. But time and again, I’ve found some of the most delicious and interesting wines come from the high elevation desert vineyards of Southeastern Arizona. Here, in the Willcox and Cochise County regions, things just seem to click.

This is where Aridus calls home. I’ve been hip to this producer since 2016 or so. Since their beginnings in 2012, Scott and Joan Dahmer of Aridus have been developing estate vineyards and their winery outside the town of Pierce. And as of the 2023 vintage, all grapes will be sourced from estate sites. The winery now tends to 40 acres of vines in the Chiricahua Foothills, most of which grow at an elevation of about 5,200 feet. Where I’m from in the Mid-Atlantic, that’s higher than most of our mountains. The dry climate, diverse soils, and large variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures means Arizona regions have more in common with, say, Mendoza, than they do California.

Aridus, and a good amount of other producers, are currently based in the Willcox American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was established in 2016. The land is above 4,000 feet and wrapped by the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains to the east, the Dragoon Mountains to the west, and the Pinaleño Mountains to the northeast. Recently, Aridus and neighboring winegrowers have proposed a new AVA called the Chiricahua Foothills, which would take its name from the nearby Chiricahua National Monument. I, for one, am curious to see where this process goes, as the potential for further exploring and establishing regional boundaries should be a help to the state’s wine business.

While a trip to the area is highly recommended, you don’t have to go that far to taste AZ wines. If you ever find yourself in Scottsdale with some time on your hands, the Aridus tasting room on Old Town is a nice spot to relax and get in the Arizona state of mind with some local vino.

While in Arizona in December – in addition to plenty of hiking, rock-climbing, and wildlife photography – I picked up some wines from two reliable producers who also make wine from Cochise County fruit – Page Springs and Dos Cabezas. I include those wines in this report as well.

Mountains outside of Sonoita, Arizona.
The Aridus wines were received as samples, while the others I purchased. They were all tasted sighted.

2019 Aridus Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, Arizona
SRP: $59
Dark purple color. The nose has a pleasantly smoky and jammy mix of aromas, with black cherries, roasted figs, and plum cake, along with barbecue sauce, black pepper, roasted red pepper, and some oregano and anise tones. The palate is rich and suave with smooth tannins and moderating acidity. Flavors of cherry and currant compote, mixed with scorched earth, warm rocks, graphite, some bell pepper, and mineral dust. A spicy, balanced, delicious Cab that offers a great intro into what AZ is capable of with Cab. (90 points)

2020 Aridus Petite Sirah - USA, Arizona
SRP: $65
Dark purple. The nose shows a dense but warm and friendly mix of fig paste, boysenberry, wild blueberries, and the fruit is tossed with a lovely mix of anise, black pepper, coffee grounds, charcoal, and even some cinnamon and ginger nuances. The palate is rich a bold but the acidity is vibrant, balancing things nicely, while the dark fruit sings (black currants, plum sauce, roasted figs). The non-fruit tones offer a lot to love, with tar, coffee grounds, mocha, toffee, some mineral and graphite vibes. Long finish with smoky earth and herbs. A dark but delightful PS that holds itself well and should age nicely, too. Arizona has a knack for this variety for sure. (91 points)

2020 Aridus Cabernet Franc - USA, Arizona
SRP: $65
Bright purple color. I like the mix of deep but tangy fruit (black cherries, dark plums, currants) with savory vibes and tones (pepper, black licorice, roasted red pepper, some dried violet, clay). The palate is saucy but vibrant with chewy tannins and medium acidity, and plenty of tangy, juicy fruit in terms of plum, blackberry, and figs. The tones of pine resin, black pepper, sliced bell pepper, violets, clove, and all sorts of earth add complexity. Finishes with violets and spice rack dust. Pleasant, complex, balanced, I’d also like to see this in a few years. (90 points)

2020 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Cimarron Vineyard - USA, Arizona, Cochise County
SRP: $28
Deep ruby. Jammy and ripe and fun on the nose with spicy red fruits and a mix of tar, mint, black pepper, and warm red clay. The palate sports dusty tannins and fresh acidity for a pleasantly balanced wine with flavors of jammy red cherries and juicy raspberries. The fruit is blended well with elements of clove, mint, white pepper, leather, some rhubarb, and hints of oak and spiced tea. Yummy, pleasant, balanced, crushable, fan-friendly red blend. (88 points)

2022 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Pink - USA, Arizona, Cochise County
SRP: $25
Bright pink color. Spritely nose of white cherry, watermelon, raspberry, with tones of floral perfume, nettle, and creosote. The palate is racy and brisk with a pleasantly creamy texture and flavors of watermelons upon watermelons. Crunchy minerals, chalk dust, and plenty of dried white flowers and white tea make for a complex and delicious pink. Dos Cabezas, per usual, making the good stuff. (89 points)

2022 Page Springs Cellars Mule's Mistake - USA, Arizona, Cochise County
SRP: $23

Pale ruby color, almost like a dark rosé. Love the aromatic flourishes of tangy red apples, white cherries, wild strawberries, along with rose hops and white pepper. The palate is light, bright, and super crunchy, with brisk acidity and the softest little tannins. Tangy white cherries and wild raspberry fruit blends well with spicy-floral vibes (rhubarb, rose hips, rooibos tea, some green herbs). Every year, this is a wild kitchen sink blend of sometimes a dozen varieties (red and white), and it is always fun, exciting, and a great value. (88 points)

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