50 in 50 #3: Arizona — Callaghan Vineyards

By Lenn Thompson


For this week’s stop on our virtual vinous tour of the 50 states, we leave the Sooner State and head a couple states west, landing is smack dab in the middle of Arizona wine country — Elgin, AZ to be more specific.

Callaghan Vineyards
is a relatively young operation, founded in 1990 by Kent Callaghan and his parents Harold and Karen. It hasn’t taken long for Callaghan Vineyards to garner praise from some of the world’s top wine critics and writers, including Robert Parker and Oz Clarke.

Callaghan grows a wide variety of grapes in the hot Arizona sun, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, petit verdot, mourvedre, riesling, malvasia and viognier. One of its vineyards, Buena Suerte Vineyard, features red, iron and calcium-rich gravelly clay, which winery owners say is one of most prized soil types for red wine grapes.

After tasting two of their wines (both from the Sonoita AVA), one red, one white, I’m tempted to agree that red wine is the real star here.

I started my wine-tasting trip through the Grand Canyon State with a bottle of Callaghan Vineyards 2004 Lisa’s Selection ($22). A blend of 66% viognier and 34% riesling, it’s barrel fermented in 2-3 year old French oak, a curious choice in my experience. Most, if not all of the viognier and riesling I’ve had in the past was done in steel tanks to preserve the crisp fruit and floral character.

This wine, enclosed with a screw cap, offers a slightly riesling-esque nose of peaches, but the oak influence is obvious, expressing itself as a discernible smoky note that joins some sweet spice, floral and orange zest aromas. Medium-bodied, the oak seems very out of place to me … and a bit raw. It overpowers the peaches-and-cream flavors that eventually become a slightly sour, slightly ‘hot’ finish (it’s 14.5% alcohol by volume). In short, I didn’t love this wine, but it was unique an interesting.

Next up was Callaghan Vineyards 2004 Claire’s Selection ($28), a blend of 39% mourvedre, 35% syrah and 26% petit verdot that, frankly, blew me away. It’s a deep, extracted purple with a thin dark violet rim, the nose is immediately reminiscent of cracked black pepper, dark, brooding fruit and black licorice accented by faint vanilla. This is a big wine, both in heft and alcohol (15.7%) that is just as big on flavor — and not nearly as ‘hot’ as one might expect with that much alcohol in play. Intense blackberry and blackcurrant flavors are tinged with light black pepper and spice. Fairly simple right out of the bottle, with some air time, the wine develops more sweet spice along with some vanilla. The tannins are well-integrated and ripe — leading to a truly well-balanced wine with a long finish. This one is also closed with a screw cap.

Clearly, there is some good wine being made in Arizona, but my tasting sample is limited. Of these two, I’d clearly recommend the red over the white, but I’m curious to taste Kent’s riesling, which isn’t fermented in oak.

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