Wine Regions 101: Sonoita/Elgin
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.
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...