One of the best kept secrets in the Southwest is the award winning wines that a handful of Arizona vineyards are making. Although modern wine producing in this state only began in 1973, these wine makers are the pioneers of an emerging Arizona industry and they’re already attaining critical acclaim for producing some of the most promising American wines in the country.
Because the sun shines most of the time, coupled with cool nights and warm days, it provides an ideal climate to grow a variety of grapes for producing wine. The soil, which is enhanced by volcanic minerals, provides interesting and unique flavors that cannot be duplicated anywhere.
In the southern part of Arizona in the rural towns of Sonoita and Elgin, there are several wineries. Three excellent wineries and tasting rooms worth a visit are clustered together on Elgin Road (also known as “winery row”):
Callaghan Vineyards, Canelo Hills Winery and Kief-Joshua Vineyards. Each is distinctly different from the other which makes it an even more pleasurable wine tasting experience.
Callaghan Vineyards – At an elevation of 4800 feet, Callaghan Vineyards produces rich, complex reds and a few white wines from its 25-acre vineyard. Since 1991, winemaker/owner Kent Callaghan and his family have been instrumental in promoting Southern Arizona as a wine region. As this is a working vineyard you won’t find Callaghan in the tasting room very often as he prefers to spend his time hands-on tending to his crop.
The tasting room, which is part tasting area and part wine storage area is not fancy, but the wine pourers are extremely knowledgeable about their first-class wines. A recent visitor enjoyed the 2008 Padres (35% Tempranillo, 23% Petit Verdot, 18% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc) for its especially intense flavor and earthy aromas. Open Friday through Sunday, a tasting costs $7.00 and includes a wine glass with the Callaghan Vineyard logo.
Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery – Next door to Callaghan Vineyards is Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery. Established in 2003, Canelo Hills is a dream come true for winemaker Tim Mueller. On the Canelo Hills website a visitor can find Tim’s Winemakers Notes which is an interesting and personalized monthly journal about the wines he makes.
Tim’s wife Joan oversees the vineyard farming and the no-frills tasting room. A visitor will often be greeted by one of the resident dogs and recently a dog friendly vineyard party was held giving visitors and their dogs a chance to tour the vineyards and winery together.
This small, family run winery specializes in handcrafting Arizona-grown fruit into award winning wines on their 6-acre vineyard. The 2007 Sangiovese Select was awarded the Silver Medal at the 2010 National Women’s Wine Competition. This is a smooth red wine with strong aromas of cinnamon and cherry along with a lingering finish of clove. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday from 11am to 4pm.
Kief-Joshua Vineyards – Perhaps one of the more elegant wine tasting rooms on Elgin Road is at Kief-Joshua Vineyards. This 20-acre family run vineyard specializes in producing full-bodied dry wines using traditional methods of barrel aging. Visitors approaching the entrance to the vineyard and tasting room come upon a turreted stone dwelling that seems a bit out of place in the middle of the desert!
Once inside, the inviting ambience beckons visitors to taste a variety of wines at the tasting bar or sit at tables overlooking the expansive view of the mountains. On a warm Arizona summer day, the 2009 Chenin Blanc is easy to drink with subtle aromas of honey and apple. Winemaker Kief Joshua Manning started planting in 2005 and practices minimal interference, open fermentation and barrel aging. His goal is to continue to practice sustainable farming techniques and already has eliminated herbicides and pesticides from his vineyard. Open daily from 11am to 5pm the cost for six wine tastings is $5.00 and includes a wine glass to take home. Make sure to give a pat on the head to the resident pooch, Dizzie Gillespie.
There are wine tasting tour operators available in Tucson to drive visitors around Southern Arizona wine country. And although there are no major hotel properties in this rural region, there are a few charming bed and breakfast inns and little cafes and restaurants.
These Arizona winemakers and their families are part of a hard working, passionate group of wine enthusiasts dedicated to putting Arizona wines on the map. And in spite of some critics who may say that Arizona has a long way to go (if ever) in becoming a wine region, the increasing number of visitors to this area who are pleasantly surprised by these winemakers and the quality of wines they are making, may prove otherwise.
Callaghan Vineyards: www.CallaghanVineyards.com
Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery: www.CaneloHillsWinery.com
Kief-Joshua Vineyards: www.KiefJoshuaVineyards.com