I just got back from a few days in Arizona wine regions catching up with a few of the state’s top producers and tasting through some of their latest releases. Arizona isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when people think about wine-producing regions. However, its dry climate and calcium-carbonate-rich soils in all three of its main growing regions make the state a veritable frontier for discovery for serious winemakers.
While some might head straight for the red wine selections to assess the state of a burgeoning wine region, I tend to look to the white wines. It’s a lot harder to mask the shortcomings of a growing season or cellar mistakes with white wine, and if you ask me, you can get a pretty quick handle on just where an industry might be headed by tasting a cross-section of what’s out there.
In the case of Arizona, the future looks quite promising. Leveraging the climatic benefits of what the sunny state has to offer, savvy producers have looked to warm-climate varieties to fill their tanks. Early on, Malvasia Bianca took hold as one of the state’s primary white varieties thanks to Al Buhl, one of the modern industry’s early pioneers who believed in its potential in the early 1990s. Today, most producers offer either a single variety selection or a blend, but its prevalence is irrefutable.
Other prominent varieties include Vermentino, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. By and large, Arizona’s heat and high pH soils make it a challenge for grapes to retain natural acidity. (Higher elevation sites with broader diurnal temperature swings fare much better.) Acidulation is common, as is picking earlier for higher acidity levels, but many producers have homed in on high-acid va-rieties such as Picpoul Blanc and Petit Manseng to help prop up a finished wine.
Below are nine white wines that cast a promising future for Arizona wine. Note: You won’t find these limited-production wines outside of Arizona borders, though a significant number of producers can ship directly to consumers, depending of course on regulations in the recipient’s state. If that doesn’t work for you, consider heading to the land of sunshine and cactus and try them for yourself.
Caduceus Cellars 2019 "Dos Ladrones"
A 50/50 blend of Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay, this aromatic offering is as provocative as it is sophisticated, with high-toned notes of mandarin and fleshy peach balanced by a linear thread of punch through to a silky finish. 92 Points
Callaghan Vineyards 2019 “Lisa’s”
Kent Callaghan has taken a shine to Petit Manseng forboost a blended wine’s natural acidity. On its own, it produces a lively, citrus-driven wine with intense minerality. In a blend such as this Lisa’s white offering, which includes 50% of this southern French variety along with a proprietary blend of other white grapes, the result is a complete, well-rounded wine with intriguing complexity. 91 Points
Chateau Tumbleweed 2020 Vermentino
As if straight from the island of Sardinia, this Vermentino harnesses a wave of tropical fruit character atop a zingy palate of crushed limestone and lemon pulp. A delicious summer wine meant for raw oysters and grilled shrimp. 95 Points
Dos Cabezas Wineworks 2020 White
Winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock rarely make a single-variety wine unless a particular vintage warrants it. Instead, they prefer to blend varieties that serve as “a cast of characters that work together.” This blend is led by Roussanne and includes a bit of aromatic Malvasia Bianca and a balance of touch of Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, and Albariño. 92 Points
Los Milics Vineyards 2019 “Hannah’s”
This offering began as a base wine for a special sparkling production, but Pavle Milics took a shine to the perky, low-alcohol (10.75%) palate of this unique blend and reserved some as a stand-alone still wine. Not your typical white blend, this wine is made from an almost 50/50 combo of Garnacha and Tempranillo. Absent skin contact, these red varieties yield a wine with citrus and berry undertones and a provocative salinity on the finish. 95 Points
Page Springs Cellars 2019 Roussanne "Colibri"
Perhaps one of my favorite varieties to see in the Southwest, Roussanne is the hot-climate answer to Chardonnay. This Roussanne from Page Springs was grown at an elevation over 5,000 feet at the Colibri Vineyard in Southeast Arizona. This wine is fresh and elegant, a leaner version of this variety with early pear and lemon zest notes. 92 Points
Pillsbury Wine Company 2019 Viognier
I’m admittedly not a huge Viognier fan, but Sam Pillsbury manages to coax just the right amount of balance out of this grape using wild yeasts, stainless steel, and neutral oak. This wine is broad with notes of mango, guava, and apricot but refreshingly light and nimble on the palate. 93 Points
Rune Wines 2019 Grenache Blanc
Apparently, plantings of this grape are rare, but when winemaker James Callahan had a chance to work with the variety, he seized on it. With bright notes of Bosc pear, lemon zest, and peach blossom, this wine offers a restrained body, that is lighter in acidity, but balanced by a crunchy minerality. Note: Chateau Tumbleweed also makes a fantastic selection of Grenache Blanc wines as well. 96 Points
Sand-Reckoner 2019 White
This offering from Willcox-based Sand-Reckoner is made from 100% Malvasia Bianca, one of the most widely planted white grapes in Arizona, which, according to co-owner/winemaker Sarah Hammelman, “grows like a dream.” This wine is elegantly restrained and finesses with subtle floral aromatics and a vervy palate curiously reminiscent of Italy’s cooler Friuli region. 94 Points