Wine Regions 101: Sonoita/Elgin

Categories: Vine Geeks

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@brianreeder

Welcome to Vine Geeks, where Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic of AZ Wine Merchants take the drinking game quite seriously. Pay attention -- you might just learn something.

One of the consistent columns I'll be writing as the resident 'vine geek' will be about different wine regions around the state, nation, and world. I really want to lift the veil of what makes a wine region special, and why that's important to the wine that's made there. Wines from Sonoita and neighboring Elgin tend to be spicy, full of fruit and more tannic than elsewhere in Arizona. This means that wines from this area can be beautifully robust while maintaining balance, and pair wonderfully with a wide variety of foods.

Here in Arizona, we are currently only blessed with a single AVA (short for American Viticulture Area; this is an area that is distinguishable by its geography as a grape-growing region). So what better place to start a little series about wine regions of the world than right here in our home state!

If you're looking to get out of the city, and beat at least a little of the heat this summer, Sonoita/Elgin is a perfect little getaway. And I really do mean little. With more wineries than hotels, gas stations, and grocery stores combined, this area leaves little for you to do but enjoy the majesty of the landscape, the refreshingly cool(ish) temperatures, and taste some delicious wines.

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@brianreeder

So what makes this area unique for wine? The French have a term that they use to describe this uniqueness based on the area the grapes were grown in; terroir. Terroir is the characteristics imparted by the climate, the geology, and the geography of a specific area. In other words, terroir is the place the grapes were grown. It's the reason two wines made in the same manner at vineyards next to each other can taste so dramatically different. In other words, the terroir is what makes a French, Oregon, and California (or any other region for that matter) Pinot Noir so wildly different in flavor, style, body, and structure.

The Sonoita/Elgin Terroir.
The Climate: Hot. Think the south of France. Or Spain. Or Italy. Just minus the beaches, sadly. During the growing season temperatures can reach 100 F during the day, but still drop substantially at night. Believe it or not, vintners in the area have substantial issues with frost and hail - in 2010 many winemakers saw a near total crop loss because hail destroyed the budding fruit. Nevertheless, I'd choose sunblock over a parka while packing.

The Geology: Igneous and Sedimentary rock. Think loose soil that drains easily, and cannot retain water well. This is perfect conditions for growing grapes, as too much water can lead to a flabby, boring wine. Thinner soil lets a vintner control the amount of water the vines see, which in turn allows them to ensure the grapes are maturing in the appropriate manner. Let the nerd in you run wild with thoughts of mineral contents, pH balances and Bunsen burners. Except the Bunsen burners, although I'm confident they could be incorporated somehow.

The Geography: High. Almost a mile high. The vineyards in this area are planted between 3900 and 5500 ft. This seems to be the key to successful vineyards in Arizona, with the majority of the vineyards at or above 3500 ft. Make sure to take a look at the stars while you're visiting - the low light pollution means you'll have quite the show. Cheesy? Yes, but your date will love it...

The Varietals (or grapes, to the wine-layman): You'll find many Spanish, Italian, and Rhone style varietals here. That means that grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Malvasia Bianca, and Viognier are widely planted and respond well to the growing conditions. These are grapes that thrive in the hot, dry conditions - notice the similarity in climate between Spain, Italy, Southern France, and Southern Arizona...


Location Info

Map

Callaghan Vineyards

336 Elgin Road, Elgin, AZ

Category: General

Dos Cabezas Wineworks

3248 Highway 82, Sonoita, AZ

Category: General

Lightning Ridge Cellars

2368 Highway 83, Elgin, AZ

Category: General

The Sonoita Inn

3243 State Highway 82, Sonoita, AZ

Category: General


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9 comments
Scott Schoneman
Scott Schoneman

Realizing you can't cover everyone in a brief article, I'll add my own recomendaiton of Callaghan's neighbors - Tim and Joan Mueller at Canelo Hills Winery. 

Suzanne
Suzanne

As for nothing to do, I'd have to disagree. You have to look or drive a little, but the area is high on history and entertainment for those willing to be a little outdoorsy. There is horseback riding (even a ride TO a winery), hiking and entertaining conversations with locals, who you should really speak to....they have some great stories. Drive a little further south to Parker Canyon Lake as a previous poster mentioned, a little farther east to Benson and Sierra Vista, and just a little past that, have some cheesy fun in Tombstone. Take some time to slow down from the pace of a hectic city and enjoy some fantastic Arizona countryside.

mikefrombisbee
mikefrombisbee

The country just east of Sonoita  was also where Showtime filmed the UFO crash site scene for their Roswell" movie back in the mid-90s. I was driving to Nogales early in the morning from Bisbee along SR 82 when I happened across a whole bunch of soldiers in a debris field. The soldiers were picking up wreckage. Their uniforms were old-school and I could see cameras and movie equipment all about. Came to find out it was the UFO crash site and debris recovery scene for the movie. The scenes depicting the town of Roswell were later filmed in Bisbee. My wife and I attended the 50th anniversary of the "crash" in Roswell out of curiosity and because Bisbee was kind of connected to it through the movie. There were lots of people who looked like true believers and many others who were just there to see what was up. There was a little old lady in the UFO Museum ringing up purchases in the gift shop. I remarked to her that the town was packed, they had a really good scam going on. She smiled and said, "Oh, no, we believe it really happened."
Anyway, what goes better with a good Cab than a UFO crash?

mikefrombisbee
mikefrombisbee

There is nothing I can think of more pleasant than sitting with my lovely wife next to a campfire at Parker Lake, watching the water change colors as the sun goes down and sipping a glass of good Cab or Merlot or MeCaSa from the Sonoita Vineyards Winery near Elgin. With a planetarium sky popping out overhead and beauty all around and the steaks on the grill... 

mikefrombisbee
mikefrombisbee

 You are correct, Suzanne. There's also the Empire Ranch, which is a historic, still-operating cattle ranch located in the Las Cienagas National Conservation Area, Kentucky Camp, a stabilized 1905 ghost town owned by the Forest Service that has an adobe cabin that can be rented for overnight stays, Patagonia, the Sonoita Creek sanctuary in Patagonia run by the Nature Conservancy, the Arizona Trail, the San Rafael Valley (used to film the 1950s version of Oklahoma and still jaw-dropping beautiful) numerous other ghost towns to explore - including Total Wreck City, my personal favorite place name in Arizona - lots and lots of hiking trails and historic sites along the San Pedro River, and the list goes on and on. This is an area to be savored like a glass of good wine, where beauty abounds, history surrounds and time slows down to an exquisite crawl. And the wine festivals in southern AZ are great fun. We attended one in Elgin a few weeks ago that featured great wine, excellent food and music by Bisbee's own Buzz and the Soul Senders. Southeast AZ has a growing number of vineyards that produce excellent varieties.

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