Saguaro cacti, cholla, 110-degree weather, "sky islands", and cattle all come to mind when thinking of southern Arizona. Vineyards certainly do not, but both Cochise County and the Sonoita-Elgin area boast a growing handful of wineries apiece.
To those familiar with the area, Cochise County perhaps makes some sense. East of the San Pedro the desert is considerably higher and cooler than it is near Tucson, Casa Grande, and Ajo; the ecologists consider it Chihuahuan, not Sonoran. Corn, milo, and beans are grown in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and fruit trees aren't unheard of in the upper Aravaipa Valley and the southern foothills of the Pinaleño Mountains.
Sonoita and Elgin are so close to Tucson, however, that growing grapes seems a bit absurd. One doesn't notice a Texas Canyon-like elevation gain while driving in, but they're considerably higher than Tucson--4800 feet above sea level--with distinct upland vegetation similar to the Sonoran Desert grasslands of the Buenos Aires NWR, but with enough soaptree yuccas and other Chihuahuan oddities to be distinct. The mountain ranges--Santa Ritas, Patagonia Mountains, Canelo Hills--all blur together here into hills, cut by still-perennial Sonoita Creek. It's still difficult to grow anything here, but the soil is well-drained and the microclimate allows the stubborn to grow grapes.
By "the stubborn" I'm thinking Kent Callaghan, the area's pioneering winemaker. In less than a decade, he took his winery, partly through trial and error, from a series of failures--death of many of the Bordeaux varietal vines due to a heat wave, a 1995 fertilizer-and-water misadventure, discovery that monsoon moisture causes Zinfandel to rot--to critical acclaim. While other wineries struggled and continue to struggle to make wines that weren't green or overly alcoholic, Callaghan Vineyards makes, from both Mediterranean and Bordeaux varietals, blended wines easily competitive with those from California and farther afield. The lessons learned here about varietal selection and viticulture, too, made matters easier for new entrants and allowed the old to improve.
Callaghan makes a few whites, well-done but with too much viognier for me to truly enjoy, but the real strength is in reds, including a few Bordeaux-style blends of Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. The real highlight, however, is the Back Lot Cuvée, a field blend of Mourvedre and Syrah, with ripe tannins and pleasant earthiness, yet accessibly fruity and full without being jammy. Occasionally they work wizardry with sourced grapes; a year or two ago they were offering well-structured and delightfully complex--black currants, pepper, and salami?--100% varietal Petit Verdot made of surplus blending grapes from Sonoma. Callaghan's wines are a bit pricy--not ultra-premium pricy, but all in the $20 range--but the reds can be worth it and the Back Lot Cuvée can be considered a bargain.
Wineres tend to take three approaches to tasting rooms: tables in a largely utilitarian setting, a thrown-together separate room with permanent counters, or wine-bar lounge style. Callaghan is certainly taking the first approach. Tours are by appointment only, but one can see back into their facility from the tasting area, which consists of a few white cloth covered tables. Service is polite and matter-of-fact. Tasting costs $6, less if you bring your own glass. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of crackers or cheese in the tasting area; I like to be able to clean my palate between tastes and to judge what a wine will taste like as it ages.
If tasting in the Sonoita-Elgin area in the afternoon, make Callaghan the first stop, as it closes at 3 PM, whereas most other area wineries stay open until 5. It's the one must-taste winery in the area, and worth a stop even if one is just passing through to Tombstone, the western face of the Dragoons, or birdwatching at the Nature Conservancy's Sonoita-Patagonia Creek preserve.. Quality at others, especially Village of Elgin Winery, has improved tremendously, and if their upcoming release shows them to be as good at viticulture as they have been at sourced-grape winemaking, Wilhelm Family Vineyards might give it serious competiton, but for now, Callaghan Vineyards is the best in the area.
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Winery Name: Callaghan Vineyards
State or Region: Arizona
County or Appellation: Sonoita AVA
Date Visited: 2007, 2009
Tours Offered: Yes, by Appt
Tasting Cost, Per Person: 6
Guidelines for rating scale: Something special