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Wine Regions 101: Sonoita/Elgin

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.

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... Notable Sonoita/Elgin Wineries/Vineyards. Callaghan Vineyards. Kent Callaghan planted his vineyard in 1990, and has been making wine his own way ever since. His wine has been poured in the White House, been lauded in The Wine Bible, and Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate said "Callaghan Vineyards must be one of the best wine secrets in America." My thought is that he makes wines that represent the Arizona terroir at its best.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks. Todd Bostock took over as the winemaker of Dos Cabezas back in 2003, and purchased the winery and vineyards in 2006. The wines here are beautifully balanced and constantly pushing the envelope for quality in Arizona. Todd is not only the winemaker and owner at Dos Cabezas, but also a champion of all things local.

Lightning Ridge Cellars. Ann Roncone started Lightning Ridge Cellars back in 2005 and has focused her efforts on making Italian varietal wines at speak to her Italian heritage. Her dedication and passion is evident in the results, fewer versions of Montepulciano are being made with as much distinction in the state.

What else to do in the area: Drink, visit Tina's Taco Truck, and watch the stars at night- while drinking. Really just drinking - If you sneeze more than twice you miss the town of Sonoita altogether.

Where to stay: The Sonoita Inn is one of few options, but fortunately is a pretty neat little joint. It's affordable, comfortable, and sits right in the center of town. Plus it was created by the owner of Secretariat, Margaret Carmichael, which means you can drunkenly admire the pictures of the race horse and family before turning in for the night.

How to get there: It's about a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Phoenix, I'm confident Google knows the way.

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Final word: I asked a local expert of tourism and to comment on what makes Sonoita unique. In his silky smooth words:

Altitude, cool temps, distinctive beauty, close to PHX, loose women, legalized drugs, raucous church socials, well stocked convenience stores, and horse races...

While I don't know about the legal drugs or loose women, I do know that they boast a substantial fair grounds and have heard the blare of the church social music...

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