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stirring the lees with james molesworth

More From Arizona: Callaghan Vineyards

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 29, 2008 9:21am ET

My blog today is the final installment of my recent series on the growth of Arizona's fledgling wine industry. I recently tasted through some eye-opening new releases from Page Spring Cellar and Arizona Stronghold, as well as Dos Cabezas. Here's another profile on one of Arizona's promising wineries:

Callaghan Vineyards

While the Arizona wine industry is enjoying a relatively recent growth spurt, Kent Callaghan is one of the industry’s veterans. At the ripe age of 43, Callaghan has been farming vines and making wine in southeastern Arizona since 1990.

Today, Callaghan Vineyards has 25 acres of vines, all planted within a 49-acre parcel located in the Soñoita appellation. Production is still a very modest 2,000 cases annually, however, as Callaghan has been getting an average of only 1 ton to 1.25 tons per acre from his vines, a function of the area’s dry, cold, wintry conditions.

“That’s been one thing we’ve had to learn over the years,” says Callaghan. “I’ve probably underestimated the effect of drought conditions during winter, plus low temps – I’ve seen it as low as 7 degrees. When you combine the two, you get some die back.”

As he’s gotten a handle on the growing conditions in the Soñoita area, Callaghan has slowly changed his vineyards over from Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, as well as Zinfandel. In their place, he's been planting more Rhône and Mediterranean varieties, including Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Grenache; he just planted an additional 4.5 acres of the latter.

Over his 15-plus years in the Arizona wine business, Callaghan has seen the industry start and stop, and now seemingly start up again. “In the beginning, everyone wanted to emulate California,” says Callaghan, of the initial choice to plant Bordeaux varieties. “They’re all gone now, and it was pretty lonely out here for a while. But now there’s a new spurt,” he adds, referring to the industry's growth from 13 to 31 wineries over the last few years

It hasn’t been an easy road, however, as Callaghan notes there are no outside consultants visiting Arizona’s wine regions, nor any technical support from a university or the government. “It’s all trial and error on our part,” he says.

For example, Callaghan has gone to screw caps exclusively on all his wines since the 2004 vintage, and he notes these closures require an extra six months to a year of bottle aging before the wines start to loosen up and become approachable.

As for the wines, Callaghan describes the fruit from the neighboring Willcox area as “more fruit forward, crowd pleasing in style,” while the fruit from his own Soñoita vines produces wines that are “burly, tannic and chewy—even the whites to an extent.”

The Callaghan Mourvèdre-Syrah-Petite Sirah Soñoita Claire's 2005 shows the slightly firm profile of the region as described by Callaghan, with its rather toasty profile and bacon, braised fig and bittersweet cocoa notes that are layered over dark cherry and briar notes. It’s slightly chewy, with a raisined finish, but stays fresh enough.

The Padres Soñoita 2005 is a blend of Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that is also quite toasty, with a firm edge to the dark cherry, raisin, herb and bacon notes. It’s fleshy, but slightly pruney in the end.

Among the whites, the Lisa's Cochise County White 2007—made from a blend of Viognier, Riesling, Malvasia Bianca, Roussanne and Marsanne—is ripe and juicy, with a nice plump feel to the braised fennel, peach and apricot notes, offset by a tangy hint on the finish.

The Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc Cochise County Ann's 2007 offers good apple, butter and melon notes that are kept lively by fresh acidity and a floral hint on the finish. It’s a rare case of these two grapes working well together.

Rajiv Modak
Tucson AZ —  December 31, 2008 7:57am ET
James - when you taste these wines blind, are they tasted within a group of Arizona wines only, or among a group of "other US wines"? As an aside, I will often insert a Callaghan rhone blend into blind tastings for fun. Most frequently, they are mistaken as wines from Paso Robles due to the ripe fruit and structure.
James Molesworth
December 31, 2008 8:25am ET
Rajiv: Good question. I try to taste varietals and regions together - I wouldn't taste cool climate Finger Lakes Cab Francs with Arizona Rhone varietals, for example...In this case there was a large enough flight of Arizona wines to taste all at once.

As always, there is a bench mark wine to start the tasting, and previously rated wines inserted blind as ringers into the flight, to help ensure consistency...
Rhonni Boss
Phoenix, AZ —  January 8, 2009 1:21am ET
I'm so happy to see your review of Arizona wines. We have great confidence in the wines being produced in our state and are excited to see more media coverage. There are many great wines coming out of Arizona and I hope that you'll get a chance to try more of them in future. They will prove to be a great compliment to the ones you've already tasted. Happy tasting!
James Molesworth
January 8, 2009 7:56am ET
Rhonni: If they send the wines, I'll taste them. We have an open door policy regarding samples, so it's up to the wineries...
Sarah Dodge
Phoenix, Arizona, USA —  March 20, 2014 8:14pm ET
James: Great series! I just found it, but it still has a lot of good information. That being said, would you consider an update?

Arizona has come a long way in the last few years, and we'd love to share our progress with you!
James Molesworth
New York —  March 21, 2014 8:53am ET
Sarah: Thanks for digging deep here. I have been tasting the AZ wines fairly regularly in recent years. Right now though my plate is full and I've had to focus on other regions.

I'll get back to tasting some AZ wines before too long though, as we intend to keep tabs on what's going on there. You're right, there has been improvement, and outside of NY state, I'd say AZ is the most promising of the 'other U.S.' category (meaning anything but Cali, Washington and Oregon)…

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