The wine regions of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado are the real frontier of American winemaking and a sommelier’s perfect new hunting ground. Although it wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern wine industry of the American Southwest was born it was in New Mexico that the first Vitis vinifera vines in the United States were planted. Talking about her latest book The Wines of Southwest USA, Jessica Dupuy tells Peter Dean about a fascinating region full of diverse terroirs, wines from over 700 wineries and indigenous grape varieties …Blanc Du Bois from Texas, or Chambourcin from Colorado anyone?
In Wines of Southwest USA, we discover how Texas has led the pack in terms of overall growth in vineyard plantings and production, but New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado have also evolved, with compelling stories and promising wine industries of their own.
Peter Dean: Jessica, Wines of Southwest USA means different things to different people – why did you settle on the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado?
Jessica Dupuy: While it’s true that the American Southwest could also include one or two other states, these four states have not only compelling wines from these emerging industries but also an interesting wine history that predates the rest of the United States, including California.
Do these states sit well together as a group of winemaking regions? And why?
It’s probably easiest to combine Arizona, New Mexico, and the far west part of Texas as the most similar in climate and growing conditions. They are generally considered high desert regions with very hot days during the growing season that fade into cooler nights. Colorado stands alone for its higher elevation sites in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains as well as its unique warm-climate region of the Grand Valley AVA. The central, southern, and eastern parts of Texas are unique growing regions of their own. (It’s worth noting that Texas is geographically larger than the whole of France, so similarly, it has many varied climates and geographic regions.)
If someone asks for a Southwest US wine is it fairly obvious what they would be getting?
In many ways, it may be a little soon to say that the Southwest as a whole has one definitive style; however, I think many may be surprised to find that the best wines from these regions tend to lean more towards the Old World in terms of flavour profiles. The fruit characteristics are less ripe and jammy and are generally framed by earthy tertiary flavors. These wines tend to be similar to what you’d find in Europe’s warmer, Mediterranean and Continental climates.
What do you think are the common threads that tie these regions together?
Geographically, the arid, desert-like growing regions are all similarly bound together. Conceptually, all of these regions benefit from their relative youth in the modern winemaking world in that they are not constrained by what grapes they can grow and in what ways they can make wine. As a result, we’ve seen a great deal of experimentation with growing different grape varieties and in vineyard management that has helped solidify a vision for each of these states to move forward.
What grapes do well?
Though there is still much to figure out, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico tend to do well with Rhône Valley varieties such as Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne as well as the Italian and Spanish varieties of Vermentino, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Graciano, and Tempranillo. Colorado is a little different. In the Grand Valley, where it is warmer, all of these grapes also do well. In the cooler growing regions, such as the West Elks AVA, you’ll find beautiful examples of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.
What are the Southwest region’s greatest challenges?
As with most iconic growing regions, Mother Nature tends to be the most challenging. Across the board for the Southwest, late fall frost and early spring frost are consistent concerns. Arizona struggles with a monsoon season during August and September, right in the thick of harvest. Hail and wind throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are also a concern. It’s the threat of very cold winters in Colorado, which makes the growing season very short from bud burst to harvest.
Can you explain what the Jefferson Cup is and how important it has been in drawing attention to the wines of the Southwest?
The Jefferson Cup is one of the first competitions to shine the spotlight on regional wines from across America. It was originally intended to be a competition for Virginia wines, but thanks to people like Doug Frost, it was expanded to include all emerging American regions. The result is that these regions have benefitted from open and honest feedback on their progress based on what judges determine during the evaluation process. It’s been a helpful guide to push these regions in a positive direction.
Californian wine was put on the map by the infamous Judgment of Paris. Do you think the wines of the Southwest states can hold their own against their European equivalents?
Without question. I regularly hold events with side-by-side blind tastings for wine experts and novices alike. I put a wine from the Southwest next to a wine of the same grape variety from its country or region of origin, and it’s always amazing to me how well the two examples stand together. Should we compete against Bordeaux in the way that California did? Absolutely not. But put some of these wines up against wines from Sardinia, Taurasi, Costières de Nîmes, and Ribero del Duero, and they’d all be in excellent company.
What do you think the four states can offer the European wine drinker that they cannot get elsewhere?
Something to discover that’s at the same time a little bit familiar. The best producers from the Southwest are recognizing the importance of understanding that a grape that’s originally from a different region of the world will have similar characteristics when grown in these new soils but will also take on nuances of their own. For Europeans looking to discover something new, these are the wines to try.
Which of the four states should we aim for first?
That’s a hard question to answer, considering I just spent a lot of time trying to represent each of them well. I think Arizona stands out as having some truly exceptional wines for having such a small overall production, but Texas is a close second.
Could you highlight your Top 10 best producers from the Southwest that you think deserve global recognition and give reasons why?
It’s a tough decision. It was hard enough narrowing down the wineries that I covered in the book, about 10-15% of the total number of producers in each state.
When it comes to Arizona wine, its quality and growing reputation owes much of this to Caduceus Cellars owner, Maynard James Keenan. While he may be known among alt-music circles for his career as the lead vocalist for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Keenan has used his fame to help create a name for Arizona Wine while at the same time setting a benchmark of standards for quality. Though hands-on and meticulous in the vineyard and in the cellar, Keenan has relied on his team, including co-winemaker Tim White, and vineyard managers Chris Turner and Jesse Noble, to help drive Caduceus Cellars to where it is today. He has also spent the past two decades seeking advice from some of the world’s most renowned enologists and viticulturists, including Peter Gago of Penfold’s and the late Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels in Australia, as well as Luca Corrado of Piedmont’s Vietti, and celebrated pruning consultant Alessandro Zanutta. Caduceus Cellars is Keenan’s more premium brand featuring small-batch blends and varietal releases such as the Kitsuné Sangiovese and the Nagual del Judith Aglianico. (He also owns a more value-driven label, Merkin Vineyards).
Home to some of the most compelling wines in the state, Callaghan Vineyards has not only garnered a reputation for quality, but owner Kent Callaghan has also been one of the most trusted mentors and advisors to others in the industry for more than 30 years. Much of his expertise is attributed to his willingness to experiment with a wide range of varieties over the years to see what works best in Arizona. Of the single-variety releases, the Graciano, Grenache, and Cabernet Franc are noteworthy. Among the blends, Lisa’s Blend is a vibrant and aromatic blend of Viognier, Riesling, and Malvasia Bianca. Padres is a robust and spicy red blend of Graciano, Tannat, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of the state’s most notable wineries, not only for its history in the industry but also for the course it has helped set for the future of Arizona wine, Dos Cabezas WineWorks is a key player. Owners and co-winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock produce distinctive yet accessible wines to convey the story of each vintage in southern Arizona. Though you’ll find a handful of single variety releases here and there in their portfolio, Dos Cabezas primarily focuses on blends. The El Campo and El Campo Blanco, both blends, show the Sonoita AVA well, while the Aquileon red blend or the Meskeoli white blend represents the Willcox AVA terroir.
Note: I’m going to break the rules and say that Sand-Reckoner, Rune Wines, Chateau Tumbleweed, and Los Milics also all deserve mention.
Although William Chris Vineyards (WCV) only arrived on the scene about a decade ago, it has rapidly gained ground as one of Texas’s most progressive quality producers. With a commitment to 100% Texas-grown fruit, which is not always a given in this industry, William Chris manage their own handful of vineyards in the Hill Country and source from growers all over the state are focused on revealing the regionality of the different growing areas. Among the varieties that best represent their efforts are the Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Tannat, Blanc du Bois and Roussanne.
Perhaps the most important ringleader in pushing the industry forward, Kim McPherson’s impact on Texas Wine cannot be understated. One of the first to champion the focus on warm-climate varieties, McPherson has also worked hard to make sure his wines are in wide distribution and offered at a good value to the consumer. Cinsault, Les Copains (Rhône blend), Sangiovese, Albariño, and Chenin Blanc are among the best offerings from McPherson Cellars.
Pedernales Cellars consistently offers a solid portfolio of wines with a focus on working with grapes that are well-suited to growing in the local climate. Offerings of Dolcetto, GSM Mélange, Albariño, and Graciano are all noteworthy, but it’s worth mentioning that the winery has become renowned for its Tempranillo and Viognier, two varieties that have gained significant attention in Texas.
Without Luna Rossa, New Mexico’s modern wine industry would not be what it is today. Paolo D’Andrea, a fourth-generation grape grower originally from a small village in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, was one of a handful of European immigrants who made their way to the Rio Grande river basin in the 1980s. He came to New Mexico in 1986 after being hired by a large company in New Mexico to teach the local workforce how to prune the vineyard, and he ended up becoming one of the largest and most important grape growers in the state for other wine producers. In 2001, his family opened Luna Rossa Winery. Today, D’Andrea focuses primarily on vineyard management and the nursery, allowing his son, Marco, to manage the winemaking. The wines of Luna Rossa tend towards full-bodied reds and crisp, vibrant whites evocative of Old-World Italian wines, revealing a common thread among the wines throughout the Southwest. Among Marco’s favourites are Aglianico, Negroamaro, and Ribolla Gialla.
Noisy Water Winery is one of the state’s most dynamic producers. Owned and operated by Jasper Riddle, who hails from a five-generation farming family, Noisy Water has made a name for itself, not only in quality but in helping to push awareness of New Mexico wine forward. Riddle’s not afraid to play around with new varieties and winemaking techniques. You’ll find anything from straightforward New World-style Cabernet Sauvignon to Old World-style Aglianico, orange wines, and wild-fermented Pinot Noir in his offerings.
The Storm Cellar is the creation of two Denver sommeliers, Steve Steese and Jayme Henderson, who were ready to put their extensive wine knowledge to the test in Colorado’s high-altitude climes. Rather than continue to sell other winemakers’ creations, they were keen to begin producing something of their own. In 2017, they purchased a property in the West Elks AVA that sits at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). While the couple does source some of their grapes from the Grand Valley AVA, their primary focus is on the white varieties in their estate vineyard, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc. They also make a rosé primarily from Pinot Gris using extended skin contact during cold soak.
Colterris is one of the largest and most technologically advanced wine producers in the Grand Valley, making wines from 100 percent Colorado-grown grapes. Winemaker Bo Felton has leveraged his experience with Duckhorn Wine Company and Rapaura Vintners in New Zealand to help push forward the winery’s focus on Bordeaux varieties. Though their red wines are pristine, also of note is the Coral White Cabernet Sauvignon, a signature offering from Colterris that presents more like a crisp, light, berry-rich rosé with its faint rosy hue.
The Wines of Southwest USA by Jessica Dupuy is out now and can be bought here.