Wines of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards are innovative, full of character, deeply rooted in terroir

To stroll Main Street in downtown Cottonwood, Arizona, is to walk into a different world far from the one you just stepped out of. It's at least ten degrees cooler here then when I closed the car door in Phoenix, two hours south and several thousand feet of elevation ago. I'd happily walk about here in mid-August. The small town feel is both obvious and charming. There's a storefront sign that proudly advertises "Antique clocks repaired". To the surprise of anyone not familiar with Arizona winemaking, I also found three winery tasting rooms inside of a block. I'd come looking for Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, an exceptional wine producer whose work I was familiar with thanks to their national distribution.

I stepped across a stylized emblem from the Arizona state flag, painted on the sidewalk out front, into a lively and comfortable tasting room filled with people who clearly care very deeply about this wine. The grapes are actually grown in Cochise County, in the far southeast corner of the state along its border with New Mexico to the east and Mexico to the south, but the winery and tasting room call Cottonwood home... nowhere near the vineyard itself. Further investigation reveals this to be a somewhat typical setup for Arizona winemaking where the grapes are grown quite far from the population centers. They've 130 acres under vine, supplemented by fruit bought from other Arizona growers. A larger vintage several years ago produced 27,000 cases, and they processed 330 tons of fruit in 2015. I absolutely love that 100% of their wine is produced from Arizona grapes, the first vintage of which came out in 2007. As you'll see in my tasting notes below, these folks are innovative blenders of different grapes and styles. Their connection with history and character of their home state is deep, meaningful, and authentic.

Arizona Stronghold does sell and ship some of its wine online, though I cannot say for sure which bottles. Sadly, they are holding all online orders at the moment because they don't want to risk shipping their wine through the frightfully hot temperatures of the Arizona summer. I recommend checking back when the weather cools so that you can try some of these yourself. They're worth it.

2015 Tazi

Mild gold in color, the Tazi is a creative Malvasia-driven (47%) blend complimented by Riesling and Pinot Gris (16% each), Sauvignon Blanc (12%), and Viognier (9%). The blend of these five different groups producing a wine with a substantive nose sniffs like a big Viognier (that 9% really stands out) and offers up notes of melon and banana. It's dry and floral -- you can really taste the honeysuckle -- and creamy going down. Tazi is higher production and distributed around the country. It should be relatively findable.

2015 Pinot Gris

The Pinot Gris, which at only two barrels produced in 2015 is vastly lower production than the Tazi, was aged in neutral American, French, and Hungarian oak. I was told that they'd love to age in Arizona oak barrels, and that they're working on that. It's weak nose is characteristic of a Pinot Gris, but the palate is quite lively with lemon zest and citrus leading into a tart finish.

2015 Vidal Blanc

The only of Stronhold's wines made from grapes grown in (relatively) cooler climate Young, AZ at over 5,000 feet elevation, the Vidal Blanc proved an interesting contrast to the hotter wines produced from fruit in the southeastern corner of the state. Soon as I picked it up, I knew that it had to have come from somewhere else; it reminded me of the Vidal we find in Massachusetts. Definitely cooler climate! In any case, there was some sediment in the bottle, and the nose was reminiscent of crystallized sugar candy, no doubt from the 1% sugar that is the byproduct of the little "ice wine" that has been blended in. Its mild melon notes don't make for an overwhelmingly sweet wine, though, but certainly something to be paired with spicier food.

2015 Rose

There's a lot happening here. Start with the blend of French Colombard (58%), Malvasia Bianca (20%), Grenache (12%), Chenin Blanc (8%), and Malbec (6%). This isn't a blend you've had before. The wine is very dark, almost a a straight up red in the glass. Strawberry notes are pretty typical of a rose, but there is something darker, stonier fruit happening here. It's cool, but dry, overall quite an interesting specimen that I'd certainly go back to any day between May and November.

2015 Grenache

We shared the 2015 Grenache as one of our top wines for September picks. Its very light color contrasts sharply with a killer nose. The hotter climate has produced a higher alcohol content that, at 14.9 ABV, makes this thing a real zinger. Stronghold produced but three barrels of the 2015 vintage, which is overall a hot, fun red with delightful bright cherries. It almost felt like a high octane Burgundy! It's so unique that we'd be hard pressed to recommend alternatives. Loved it.

2015 Mourvèdre

We're always intrigued to run across good Mourvèdre grown in the United States, because it just isn't that common. Known as "Monastrell" when produced in Spain, Mourvèdre is a grape common in the Côtes du Rhône (CDR) winemaking region of France. The Arizonan take on it is lighter, but also the most complex nose of all the Stronghold wines in the lineup thus far. It's earthier and mushroomy, reminiscent of its CDR cousins. Peppers and spice notes reminded me of Cab Franc.

2014 Nachise

I learned that the Nachise is named for Naiche, son of Cochise, famed leader of Arizona's Chiricahua Apache Indians (it did not come up in conversation at the winery, but on further research I can only assume that the Tazi white blend is named for Taza, the eldest son of Cochise). Soon as I tried to the Grenache and the Mourvèdre, I asked if Stronghold had produced a "GSM" (shorthand for the common blending of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre). Nachise is the the answer, though we'd more accurately call it a "GSMP" in respect of the 8% Petite Sirah blended alongside 47% Syrah, 35% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre. This wine is dark in color and big in spirit. Dark fruit up front is followed quickly by notes of menthol, eucalyptus, black fruit and boysenberry. Lovers of big bold red blends will adore it. 

2014 Petite Sirah

I always love when a winemaker produces single varietals of a blend, in other words, when I get to taste wine made from each grape individually alongside a blend of the same. The Petite Sirah gave me another shot at 8% of the Nachise I had tasted a moment earlier. On it's own, this wine is impenetrably dark in color. I picked up cheese in the nose (cheddar?). It's less complex than some of the other reds on offer, but I'll call it "steakier", "liquid dinner" if you will. Meaty in the back of the mouth, the Petite Sirah is the most substantive on the list, and demands a hearty meal to go with it.

2013 Lozen

Stronghold is clearly proud of the last red on the list, for they're serving it up in a beautiful etched (rather than paper label) bottle that is different from all the rest. A big bold blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (64%), Merlot (28%), and Cabernet Franc (8%), Lozen is all about dark cherries and chocolate, cranberry and cocoa powder, with a nice little burn in the nose. It eventually settled down, but I would absolutely decant before serving. It has a lot of room to age in the bottle for years to come. Lozen, I came to learn from the back of the bottle, is named for the "Chihenne-Chiricahua Apache warrior, shaman, and seer". Born in 1840 and died in 1890, her picture hangs proudly on the wall of the tasting room alongside portrait photographs of Taza and Naiche, all three monuments to Stronghold's committed sense of place -- terroir -- in the beautiful state it calls home.