Malbec is a grape that has found its niche as a medium to full-bodied red worldwide, thanks to Argentina’s vast, high desert plains. A similar landscape to those surrounding the Argentinan vineyards owned by the Asmundson family inspired them to plant similar vineyards in the Willcox AVA. Along with the vintages made sourced from nearby Carlson Creek Vineyard, Coronado Vineyards, and Dragoon Mountain Vineyards, the vintages from Deep Sky may indicate that Malbec may be a similarly expressive varietal here in the high deserts of Arizona. To test this hypothesis, let’s look at the 2013 Big Bang Malbec, from Deep Sky.
The 2013 Big Bang Malbec seen here at night against remnants of the Big Bang.
The Wine: The 2013 Big Bang Malbec is made from 100% Malbec, sourced from the Deep Sky vineyard in the heart of the Willcox Bench, in the Willcox AVA. The wine was made at the Aridus production facility, begun by Rob Hammelman and finished by Marc Phillips. The wine was aged in 50% new French barrels. Deep Sky Vineyards used the same cooperage, Boutes, that they use for their wines in Argentina. It was aged in barrel about 20 months.
The Nose: On the nose, the 2013 Big Bang Malbec opens with aromas of earth, cedar, plum, black cherry, red currant, dried violets, and petrichor, intermingling with hints of mint, black raisin, cacao, and sweet tobacco. There is just the faintest hint of the typical dust I associate with reds of the Willcox AVA, more prominent after this wine has been open for a while.
The Palate: The 2013 Big Bang Malbec is a full-bodied red wine with high acidity and medium tannins at this juncture. The wine opens with notes of red plum, black cherry, and bilberry, intermingling with earth, vanilla, cacao powder, iris, black violet, and grape jam. The finish lasts for 43 seconds, with notes of black raisin, sugar plum, blackberry, mulberry, sage, and tobacco with a sharp bite of acidity and some lingering leathery tannins.
The Pairing: I would consider pairing the 2013 Big Bang Malbec with a hearty elk (or vegetarian) chili, or an elk roast with winter vegetables. I feel a good cigar pairing for this wine would be The Last Tsar, from Caldwell.
Impressions: The 2013 Big Bang Malbec is not typical of an Argentinian Malbec. Nor is it quite spot on for comparing to a Malbec from Cahors, the probable Urheimat of this grape varietal. It is both something in between, and yet different entirely; something new. I’m pretty sure in a blind tasting, I could pick this out as an Arizona vintage. Drink now, or cellar this wine for another five years.
Personified, this Malbec is an operatic singer wearing a velvet purple cape, playing Brunhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Malbec in the vineyard and the cellar:
Matthew Raica, AZ Stronghold: “I can’t speak too much to working with it in the vineyards here, beyond just that I think it grows well and doesn’t seem to give too many issues when it comes time to pick. I’ve worked with Deep Sky for two vintages and Carlson Creek for one: I find the fermentation profiles are pretty predictable and consistent, with the resulting wine showing very classic varietal character. I think farming practices probably influence the outcome greatly, as I can see a huge difference between these two vineyards despite being so closely located to each other. I’m extremely happy with the resulting wines; we’re exploring the possibility of planting our own Malbec block at our vineyard.”
Aaron Weiss, oDDity Wine Collective: “I only worked with it for one season, but I found it to be easy to work with, pretty good chemistry right off the vine. The wine is exciting to us and has classic character.”
Montepulciano is a grape that, generally speaking, doesn’t get enough love. This is a shame because I rather enjoy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as along my favorite Italian Reds. Yet in Arizona, only four vineyards I am aware of are growing this varietal at this time: Cimmaron Vineyard, Chiricahua Ranch Vineyard, Lightning Ridge Vineyard, and Dragoon Vineyard. It is from Dragoon Vineyard where our current wine for our spooky Halloween wine review comes: the Death, from Cellar 433’s Bitter Creek Winery label.
The Death is arguably one of the most controversial and hyped wines in Arizona, due to a scandal involving this wine a few years ago at the AWGA awards ceremony; this is a re-release of Montepulciano with the same label. Is it worth the hype? Let’s find out.
The Cellar 433 “Death” Montepulciano, as seen in the Jerome Graveyard.
The Wine: The Death is reportedly 100% Montepulciano, sourced from Dragoon Mountain Vineyard in the Willcox AVA. There is no vintage listed on the bottle, but I recall being told in the tasting room that it was from the 2016 harvest. I suspect this wine was aged both on French and American oak, as I get characters on the palate and nose that, to me at least, I associate with both oak types, but I may be wrong. This wine is slightly pale for a Montepulciano; a lighter shade of pale ruby, according to the Wine Folly chart.
The Nose: When first opened, an intense VA character can be discerned on the nose of the Death, but after giving the wine a moment in the glass, aromas of black plum, prunes black cherry, mesquite, cedar, caramel, thyme, and red plum characters emerge, intermingling with notes of coconut, dill, vanilla, coffee, anise, balsamic and cranberry.
The Palate: Again, when first out of the bottle, there is an intense VA character that overwhelms the palate, but when decanted and given some time, the Death proves itself to be a medium-bodied wine with medium tannins and high acidity. With notes of sour cherry, tart cranberry, prune, jammy blackberry, and boysenberry, this wine is pretty tart. Additional notes of clove, tar, balsamic and coffee round out the palate. The finish of this wine lasts for 30 seconds, with notes of clove, vanilla, cinnamon, sour cherry, cranberry, and mesquite. This wine has the distinctive Montepulciano characters but is decidedly light-bodied compared to other vintages I’ve imbibed made from this grape.
The Pairing: I would pair this wine with any sort of hearty Italian-style meal, featuring pasta–Lasagna strikes me as a good go-to. If you seek to smoke a cigar with Death, pair this wine with the Davidoff Chef’s Edition.
Impressions: I remember being far more impressed with this bottle in the tasting room, than upon this examination. It is possible that I had a sub-par bottle, or didn’t decant it long enough, but I did not find this bottle worth the hype this time around, in full honesty.
I readily admit that this is not the best vintage of Arizona Montepulciano I’ve encountered: that honor so far goes to the vintages from Lightning Ridge in Sonoita, but Greater Than Wines is doing a Montepulciano this year as well that I look forward to. Drink this bottle now. I do strongly recommend decanting this wine to let the VA aromas blow off. If you are patient enough to do so, this wine will be a good vintage to serve with Italian-based meals.
Personified, this vintage of Death is more like the character of Death from Good Omens, rather than the friendly version trying to understand humanity as seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
Notes from the field, courtesy of Greg Gonnerman: “It’s on its own roots and quite happy. Most vines are quite vigorous. Clusters are loose and not prone to rot or mildew. Chemistry at harvest was quite good. This seems to be a good variety for Arizona.”
Aglianico is a varietal which has also been bandied about as a potential “best of Arizona” red varietal; one of which I will admit is a favorite varietal of mine in general. Originally hailing from Southern Italy, Aglianico is a grape with a long history, dating back to the Roman period. (Indeed, it is one of the many grapes that have been suggested were used to create the most famous Roman wine, Falernian.) In Arizona (to my knowledge) Aglianico is planted at so far at the Southwest Wine Center, as well as Cimarron, Dragoon, Callaghan, Lightning Ridge, and Cove Mesa Vineyards. There are further plans to plant this grape in the Dos Padres site at Page Springs, as well as at the Passion Cellars properties in Elgin and the Willcox Bench. For our examination in this “best of” blog series, we will explore the 2015 Cimarron Aglianico from Callaghan Vineyards.
The 2015 Cimmaron Aglianico is one of a few 100% varietal Aglianico vintages to be found in Arizona right now, but that number promises to increase as numerous plantings of this grape mature throughout Arizona.
The Wine: The 2015 Cimmaron Aglianico is made from, big surprise, 100% Aglianico sourced from Cimmaron Vineyard in the Willcox AVA. This vineyard is owned by Todd Bostock. I don’t know exactly how this wine was made, but I am guessing that it was aged in new and neutral French oak barrels for about a year and a half before bottling; I don’t get any sense of American oak on this vintage whatsoever. The wine, of course, was made by Kent Callaghan. In hue, according to my French color chart (which I will soon dismiss in favor of the one in the new Wine Folly Magnum edition), this wine is a deep Rouge Sang.
The Nose: Imposing aromas of cherry, plum, cassis, mulberry, and other dark fruits intermingle with sandalwood, vanilla, nutmeg, rich earth, cigar box, tar, dust, and petrichor form the opening salvo of the 2015 Cimmaron Aglianico. As the wine opens, additional aromas of eucalyptus, cinnamon, smoke, and violets emerge from the glass.
The Palate: The 2015 Cimmaron Aglianico is a full-bodied red wine with high, gripping tannins and high acidity, very reminiscent of its Italian compatriots. Notes of cedar, plum, black cherry, black currant, cassis, anise, dust, gravel, smoke, leather, sandalwood, and roasted pecans round out the palate. The finish of this wine lasts 50 seconds, with notes of cassis, nutmeg, cedar, high acidity, and super dark black fruit, intermingling with cloves, cinnamon, which fades into an herbaceous character of eucalyptus and lingering tannins before disappearing into oblivion.
The Pairing: Pair this wine with big foods, like steak, lamb, or a lasagna filled with mushrooms and eggplant; moussaka would also work rather well. For a cigar pairing with this wine, sip this wine while smoking The Tabernacle from Foundation Cigar Co.
Impressions: This wine is a broody one, for sure. It is big, burly, but also broody. While decidedly masculine, I feel this wine isn’t overbearing and brash like a California Cabernet. The 2015 Cimmeron Aglianico is a wine that will age and cellar well; indeed, I would love to see how this wine fares in another 20 years or so as this wine is definitely going to be a sleeper hit. At this point in time, I would highly recommend decanting for an hour at an absolute minimum.
Personified, this wine is a gothic sort in a punk-rock mohawk, but who is fond of wearing classic tweed coats. A very interesting sort of goth; He has created a metal band that inexplicably is inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and other works by C.S. Lewis and lesser-known works by the Inklings.
Vineyard notes on Aglianico from Ted Ferring, who is vineyard manager at Yavapai College:
T: “Keep in mind our vines are relatively young – 5th leafing – we had to drop a significant amount of our crop due to uneven development but still sent 1.5 tons to the SWWC. I think that if we have students pay more attention to cropping of the fruit we’ll do great with this varietal in the future. The biggest headache with this varietal the past couple of years is its willingness to push significant amounts of energy into suckers – if your not clipping them every couple of weeks they’ll literally become new trunks. As for vigor: Above average vigor – but not super vigorous – hard to say if rootstock/varietal are having an impact on vigor – in general, our vigor seems to rise as we head south thru the vineyard. The first five acres north of the gully have struggled (in my opinion) because of the heavy clay – they’re just starting to “wake up” this year – the vigor of the last four acres (Grenache/Carignan/Tannat/piquepoul) has been crazy – the girth on those trunks have already surpassed some of the vines planted 3 years before them – right now I’d argue that location is having a bigger impact on vigor and feeding via fertigation for the first time had way bigger impacts in vigor.”
C: So you would say that Aglianico does better–or at least, does well there–potentially because of the more… Loamy/sandy/gravely nature of the soil in that block, since its less rich in clay?
T: “Personally I think most varietals do better here when there’s less clay – it’s also harder to gauge how much water to put on heavy clay soil since it tends to hold the water longer – I think we finally had a decent year with the Malvasia and cab (super high clay) due to the dry winter – in the past the soil there would practically turn anaerobic from the winter rains (it never drys out) – on the south side the gravel/sand drains better – it’s more forgiving to a “new” manager like myself.”
(Todd Bostock and Kent Callaghan were contacted regarding this varietal, both about vineyard and cellar experience, but neither replied to my request for information.)
Gary Kurtz: “Aglianico is easy as fuck in the cellar. It needs almost no attention, even when it comes in beat to shit because you fucked up and bought it from (redacted vineyard).”
Verdict: Aglianico is arguably more tannic than most of our other potential “best of Arizona” reds, but may not be as versitile as Sangiovese… but perhaps doesn’t need to be. I wish more people had responded to my requests for information so I could learn more about ease of care or of farming of this varietal.
Petit Sirah XM from the Southwest Wine Center: Part 2 - SoundCloud (3494 secs long, 1 plays)Play in SoundCloud
Ever wonder about the rules of cigar and wine pairing? (or if there are even any rules?) I’ve been getting into cigars lately, so I have.
In Part two of this two-part series, we are exploring cigars and cigar pairings with wine using the Petit Sirah XM from the Southwest Wine Center. This episode focuses on pairing the wine with a few cigars, as well as which pairs more with a late harvest sweet wine from the Loire Valley. The cigars used in this podcast are the Leaf by Oscar Maduro, the Partagas Serie D, the Guerrilla Warfare, and the Atabey.
Cigars and wine make good bedfellows, let’s talk about why.
Petit Sirah XM from the Southwest Wine Center: Part 1 - SoundCloud (2747 secs long, 22 plays)Play in SoundCloud
Ever wonder about the rules of cigar and wine pairing? (or if there are even any rules?) I’ve been getting into cigars lately, so I have.
In Part one of this two-part series, we are exploring cigars and cigar pairings with wine using the Petit Sirah XM from the Southwest Wine Center. This episode focuses more on the wine itself; part two will focus on direct pairing with the cigars we have selected for this vintage.
Petit Sirah is another varietal which has been suggested as a potential “Best Of Arizona” red, but we will examine a different Petit Sirah for an entry in that series (as yet to be determined), so stay tuned.
The Petit Sirah XM was designed to be a cigar wine by the students of the Southwest Wine Center.
Does Arizona have a “Best” grape? This was a question recently posed by Greg Gonnerman, the owner of Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards and Laramita Cellars. For whites, it seems, we have an answer to that question: Malvasia Bianca seems to do leaps and bounds better than just about anything else, by and large. But what about the reds? Over the next month or so, as I mentioned in my last entry, I’m planning on exploring some of the possible candidate varietals. We are going to begin with the Facebook popular favorite, Sangiovese. We will start, therefore, with the 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese, from Chateau Tumbleweed.
Anyway, onto the wine in question!
The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese from Chateau Tumbleweed will be the first wine we explore in the “Best of Arizona Red Varietals?” series.
The Wine: The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese is made from 100% Sangiovese, sourced from Edge of the Vine Vineyard, located in Yavapai County, Arizona, which is near Rimrock, in the Verde Valley. Harvest took place on August 20th. The grapes were destemmed, but not crushed, into an open-top, 3-4-ton bin. The grapes were cold-soaked for 24 hours, then fermented with specially selected yeasts. The wine was hand-punched 3-4 times daily, and pressed at dryness after 11 days of skin contact. Malolactic fermentation was induced, and the wine was settled 2 days before barreling. The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese was aged for 7+ months in a neutral French oak barrel, and then 4 additional months in a 1-year-old French oak barrel. The wine was racked three times and was filtered, but not fined. Total Acidity stands at 5.6 g/L, and it sits comfortably at a pH of 3.79. The winemaker, like with all Chateau Tumbleweed vintages, was Joe Bechard. The wine is a cheerful Violet de Bayeux in hue on French wine color chart.
The Nose: The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese opens up with aromas of bright cherry, vanilla, sandalwood, wet clay, Connecticut broadleaf tobacco, and raspberry, intermingling with Squadron Leader pipe tobacco, anise, coriander, crushed limestone, black pepper, mulberry, and some floral characters reminiscent of cliff rose and rosehips.
The Palate: The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese is a medium-bodied, low tannin, high acidity red wine. This wine is seriously juicy; opening with bright cherry, raspberry, and plum, intermingling with notes of earth, sandalwood, limestone, black pepper, and squadron leader pipe tobacco. The finish is relatively short, lasting for 29 seconds, with notes of cherry, raspberry, earth, black pepper, anise, and lingering acidity.
The Pairing: This wine is going to pair well with just about anything you throw at it, but my go-to pairing would be Chicken Parmesan, Spaghetti and Meatballs, or a nice, homey lasagna. All of these dishes are pretty easy to make utilizing vegetarian or vegan styles, too using eggplant and mushrooms. For a cigar pairing, I’d serve this wine with the Sobramesa, or whatever your average daily cigar is.
Impressions: The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese is, overall, a pretty good example of what a standard, run-of-the-mill Arizona take on Sangiovese as a varietal should taste and be like, in my opinion. This is not a bad thing at all–since this varietal is so versatile here in Arizona, it’s nice to have a good lodestar to set a course by. This is a wine that is going to pair great with a wide variety of foods, but will be great to imbibe on it’s lonesome. I would not recommend cellaring this wine any longer; it’s tasting really great right now, but this wine will be fine if you lose a bottle or two in your cellar for a couple more years.
Personified, the 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese is your opposite sex BFF in casual clothes. You’re going to have a lasagna (possibly microwaved, if not an old family recipe), and you’re going to have a Netflix marathon watching Frasier together. It’s a cozy vintage.
Some parting notes on farming Sangiovese and working with it in the cellar:
From Greg Gonnerman: “Sangiovese is not difficult in the vineyard. There can be some rot, but relatively rare. Yields are moderate to high. Nice varietal, with 3.6 on ph this year; the numbers came in really good. It is also quick to harvest, per volume, if you’re doing manual harvesting.”
From Gary Kurtz (Greater than Wines): “Farming… it blows. It needs to have its clusters fondled like Grenache in order to not rot, but it is beautiful in the cellar.”
From Jason Krug (formerly PSC, now Raffldini Vineyard in NC): “…It all depends on where you want to plant it…NC bad place for Sangiovese..but there are a lot of places in AZ, New Mexico and elsewhere I’d plant it..it’s usually thin-skinned, tight cluster tends to set a lot of fruit..most the time it’s hard to get to 24 brix but if farmed creatively one could do it. Fort Bowie used to grow a lot of Sangiovese it always cropped heavy… Also, there are a lot of clones of Sangiovese. We have 4 different clones at Raffaldini and they all have pluses and minuses. Anything you plant will be site-specific (soil, slope, aspect, elevation, available water, etc, etc…). If it is planted in AZ it will likely be a lighter Sangiovese (light-bodied wine and fruit forward that’s just how it usually goes with Sangiovese and Grenache. But there are tricks in the vineyard and the cellar to bring forward a better Sangio. Talk to winemakers that bring in Sangio that you like find out who grows it and ask what clones they prefer…I like clone 102 and Brunello clones but they are hard to get to full potential in NC but if farmed right they may have a chance in AZ…seems like a lot of vineyards out there bring theirs in early before getting to its phenolic potential for a full-bodied Sangio. ”
Rolf Sasse (Flying Leap Vineyards): “From one year to another, you just don’t know. Any grape can be a diva or any grape can be laid back. It just depends on the quality of fruit you get. The main thing for Sangiovese is it takes to many styles of winemaking. It’s not something that has extremely unique own flavors (like Mourvedre). It’s workable, its flexible. As seen by our Classico, Reserva, Select…yum. It’s a single varietal that I can make what I want it to be.”
Rose Sasse (Flying Leap Vineyards): “Sangiovese is a beautiful juicy globe of a grape. In the cellar it is one of the less worrisome varietals. We put the same care into all of the grapes, but as for tweaking, I suppose, yes, it doesn’t suggest the need for blending and during its aging journey rarely causes sleepless nights.”
Kent Callaghan (Callaghan Vineyards): “Early budder. A no-go in our part of Sonoita although I think Ann R has better luck here. I’m actually not a fan of Sangiovese in AZ. Way better varieties to work with. IMO too many folks looking blindly to established dominant varieties from other areas (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Malbec etc). Best varieties here actually show personality that differentiates them from wines from other areas.”
Verdict: Sangiovese can be made in a variety of styles, from super-tannic, to blends, to rosé, and even easy-drinking table wines such as this vintage in question. It seems… relatively easy to farm, by and large, though rot is a major issue, and therefore it requires some babying there. It is also a grape easy to work with in the cellar. It grows well in both the Verde Valley (as in this example) and in the Willcox AVA, though apparently is prone to frost issues in Sonoita and isn’t grown there. Marketability seems easy enough, and it is a grape that seems to be liked by a wide variety of customers in the tasting room. Therefore… it is still in the running.
The 2016 Edge of the Vine Sangiovese at the edge of a waterfall.
This was a question recently posed by Greg Gonnerman, the owner of Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards and Laramita Cellars. For whites, it seems, we have an answer to that question: Malvasia Bianca seems to do leaps and bounds better than just about anything else, according to almost anyone you could ask.
But what about the Reds? Over the next month or so, I’m planning on exploring some of the possible candidate varietals, focusing on wines made from those particular varietals. I hope to get information on farming and fun in the cellar from various winemakers and growers, relating to each varietal I’m covering.
Before we poke at this wine further, however, we need to define what exactly do we mean by “best”. Do we mean easiest to grow from a farming perspective? Do we mean a varietal that works well from a winemaking perspective in Arizona, in terms of cellar care? Do we mean something that tastes good, no matter how it’s made or who makes it? Does the final “best” varietal need to do well in all three AVA or proposed AVA areas in Arizona? The definition, I suppose, depends on the person asking.
The definition I am choosing, perhaps arbitrarily, is as follows: 1) A grape that is fairly easy to farm in the vineyard 2) Isn’t hard to work with, in the cellar, in terms of winemaking. 3) Does well in more than one viticultural area in Arizona. 4) Tastes good in general, possibly across multiple styles.
So tell me, readers: What, in your opinion, is Arizona’s best red grape varietal?
What do you think is Arizona’s “best” red grape varietal?