An Unexpected Delight on the Sonoita Wine Trail

Sonoita Wine AVA

The vast, Saguaro-punctuated desert around Tucson is not the first place oenophiles may think about when considering wine trails. And yet, as discovered on a recent trip to the area, the Sonoita Wine Trail is a distinctive and lovely spot producing a bounty of good wine. How is that possible? It’s the approximately 5,000-foot elevation for one thing, far cooler than the desert floor, but still home to the desert’s monsoonal summer rains, and of course, plenty of Arizona sun.

Around an hour south of Tucson are the tiny towns of Elgin and Sonoita, home to over twelve vineyards including Sonoita – the state’s first winery, founded in 1983, Callaghan Vineyards, and Kief-Joshua Winery among others.

Well-known winemaker Kent Callaghan is the driving force behind his eponymous vineyards, where French and Spanish varietals hold sway. Here you’ll find rich reds like the winery’s spicy Tempranillo, complex Mourvedre, or sweetly intense dessert Cabernet Sauvigon. The winery’s Tannat 2012 took best of show and best red in the 2014 Arizona Republic Wine Competition, the Padres 2012 took Gold Medal and Best Red Blend. Crafted from Tempranillo, Grenache, and Syrah, this wine has rich fruit notes of cherry and strawberry. But don’t ignore the whites – Anne’s Selection 2010 is a dry, crisp blend with a lemony finish, comprised of Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, Symphony, Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. French-oak barrel fermented, there are notes of almond, apple, and lemon prevalent in this wine.

At Sonoita, the founder’s granddaughter continues an award winning wine tradition with a rich, fruity Syrah, a deliciously dry Pinot Noir redolent of strawberries and raspberries, and other gold-medal winners like the delicate Petit Syrah. With over thirty-acres of vines, Sonoita has some fascinating new blends like the MeCaSah, combining Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. This house wine is bursting with fruit and oak flavor.

Kief-Joshua winery in Elgin uses both open fermentation and barrel aging, and practices organic, sustainable wine making. Visitors will spot adorable baby-doll sheep grazing for weed control. And the wines themselves? Winemaker Kief Manning offers stellar choices that include a 2012 Riesling with flavors of lemon and green apple, as well as a smoky 2013 Tempranillo, with tastes of cedar, berries, and a hint of vanilla. The 2013 Chardonnay has notes of melon, nectarine, pear, and lemon zest.

Not far away, at Charron, home of an award winning dry White Merlot, other stand-outs include a Viognier with the flavor and aroma of pear and peach, and the distinctive Merlot Blanc De Noir, a blush wine with a sweet complexity of fruit and oak.

Flying Leap Vineyards operates two distinct vineyards as well as four tasting rooms and three art galleries, one at the estate winery in Elgin. Despite the diversity, the focus is firmly on their complex wines. The ten-acre Elgin estate was formerly the Canelo Hills Vineyard, and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah, primarily.
On the Sonoita wine trail, just as unexpected as the dry desert environment itself are the nuanced tastes and wide variety of reds and whites served at the area’s tasting rooms. With expansive views, and a relaxed vibe, the wine trail welcomes not just one visit but several. Wines as interesting to explore as these assure visitors they won’t go thirsty in the desert.

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