Brian Cain

Arizona Wines Revisited

Brian Cain
Arizona Wines Revisited

Arizona Wines Revisited

Once again, we’ve brought back to Michigan an assortment of fine Arizona wines to have our friends evaluate in a blind tasting.


On this trip, we focused on two types of wine.   First, white wines made from grapes other than Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.   Secondly, we brought back some red wines made primarily from Mediterranean varieties.


Originally, many of Arizona’s wineries started by planting Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling.  These varieties adapted well to the dessert and consumer response was good.   See the blog post dated April 2nd, 2017 (below).  Yes, contrary to everything we thought we knew in Michigan about Riesling thriving only in cool northern climates, is not exactly true.  Some of the best dry Rieslings I’ve ever tasted were grown right out in a high elevation dessert in Arizona.  Eventually, other grape varieties whose native digs were in dessert-like climates of the Mediterranean were planted on an experimental basis.   The results were remarkable with old school varieties such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Picpoul and Chenin Blanc*.


Elevation is very important.   All three of Arizona’s American Viticulture Areas are located at 4,000 foot elevations or higher.   Though these areas are still brutally hot by Michigan standards, the fact that they really cool off at night allows the vines to retain vigor and fully ripen fruit.   I can’t say that I have ever experienced an Arizona wine that could be described as lean, meager, thin or green.   Regardless of variety, Arizona wines are generous, broad textured and ripe with alcohol content and fruit concentration similar to wines from California’s Sierra Foothills.


This tasting was only “single blind”.   That is, it was known that all but two of the wines were grown in Arizona with two non-Arizona wines thrown in for context.   No one knew what varietals, brands or viticulture areas were represented, however.


Below are the resulting scores from our wine tasting.  Because we had so many different wines, we scored them but did not rank them.   Each wine really needed to be judged on its own in the context of but not compared to the other wines.  Both the group score and my score were pretty bunched up indicating a generally high regard for all of the wines.  Prices tend to be fairly high.  Most of the whites and rose are about $20 and most of the reds $30+ except for the Chianti which is about $12.  


WARM UP WINES (not scored)

2016 GOLDEN RULE Patrick’s Rose (80% Grenache / 20% Riesling), Wilcox, AZ (13.9% ABV)  This is a good solid rose with lots of fresh strawberry-like fruit with ample body, pleasing balance and a nice crisp finish.

2013 SONOITA VINEYARDS SyrahAZ, Elgin, AZ (14.4% ABV)  This was the only wine that came across as really odd.  There is something like menthol, band-aid box and resin in the bouquet and strange spice in the finish.   With airing, it did blow off somewhat or maybe we just got used to it.  We have had some stellar wines from this winery, particularly the Malbec but, this Syrah is not one of them.  Most of the tasting panel found it less than inviting.



2012 CARLSON CREEK Chenin Blanc, Camp Verde, AZ (14.8% ABV)  Super fresh and bright (remarkably so, considering the age) with well integrated balanced acidity and easy to like mouth feel.  Simple, yet in a way, classy.  My score 88 points, group score 89 points.

2014 SKINNERHORN Ortega, Creston, British Columbia, CANADA (11.6% ABV)  Though fairly low alcohol, the wine is actually huge!   The massive aroma is much like an Alsace Cru.   Full bodied, richly aromatic, freshly fruity, hints of green herbs and long on the palate.   Interestingly, most of the women picked it out as the non-Arizona white wine.   My score 90 points, group score 95 points.

2014 PILLSBURY WINE COMPANY Wild Child Cochise County (50% Riesling / 45% Viognier / 5% Chenin Blanc), Wilcox, AZ (12.5% ABV)  Though not as explosively lively and fresh as I remember it being almost a year ago when we encountered it in Arizona, it has morphed into something resembling a really good Soave.   There is something toffee-like contrasted by bright fruit and subtle minerality much like wines of NE Italy.  My score 86 points, group score 83 points.

2016 KEELING SCHAEFER VINEYARDS Picpoul Blanc, Cochise County, Wilcox, AZ (12.9% ABV)  Here is a very pleasant, lightly spicy, candy-like (not sweet, however) simple white wine for everyday enjoyment.  My score 82 points, group score 80 points.



2013 PODERI DEL NONNONANNI Chianti DOCG (Sangiovese), Tuscany, Montespertoli, ITALY (12.5% ABV)  A lovely wine that most of the tasters perceived as “different” from the others.  The bright red fruit stood out for its fresh pure supple mouthfeel.  My score 90 points, group score 86 points.

2013 LIGHTNING RIDGE CELLARS Montepulciano, Sonoita, Wilcox, AZ (15.6% ABV)   Ripe, prune-like fruit with a wild steak in it not unlike hybrid grapes from the Midwest.  I don’t know too much about Montepulciano as a varietal grape other than it is related to the Sangiovese and thrives along the Adriatic side of Italy in the Abruzzo region.  Clearly, Montelpulciano gets very “sugar-ripe”** in Arizona but, may require a longer cooler season to ripen all of the flavors. My score 78 points, group score 84 points.

2015 SOUTHWEST WINE CENTER (Yavapai College) Tempranillo, Clarkdale AZ (13.8% ABV)  As is the case at MSU and Lake Michigan College, Yavapai College, north of Phoenix has an oenology program with its own winery.  This great wine clearly demonstrates Mediterranean wine quality in the high dessert.  Though very mild, the fruit emerges and just keeps getting more powerful as the wine airs in the glass.  This is clearly one of the very best Arizona wines I’ve tasted.  My score 94 points, group score 92 points.

2015 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS Super Arizona (38% Sangiovese / 22% Malbec / 11% Barbera / 8% Arinarnoa / 6% Graciano / 5% Montepulciano / 4% Merlot / 4% Nebbiolo / 2% Tempranillo), Cornville, AZ (13.1% ABV)  Being our first experience with this blend, it is hard to judge if it is typical.   Like many Italian-American wines made in places like Cucamonga or Oakley CA, there is a rustic, unsophisticated, gut appeal that is a most enjoyable quaff.   There is a meaty Mediterranean demeanor with an American lustiness.   My score 85 points, group score 88 points.


Enjoy in Good Health,

A Brian Cain, the Michigan Vintner

*Though Chenin Blanc’s native French Loire Valley terroir is hardly dessert, the grape has been extremely successful in dessert regions such as California’s Central Valley, South Africa’s Cape area, Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley and Argentina’s Mendoza region.

** The more sugar in the grape, the higher the potential alcohol. However, depending on the characteristics of each grape variety and location, the flavors don’t always ripen at the same rate as the sugar. In California, Zinfandel is prone to build sugar before building flavor and structure. Therefore, if the grapes get picked for peak flavor which may be well into the sugar-ripe zone, the alcohol is often over 15%.