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The Next World Class Wine Frontier: Desert Wine

October 23, 2021 1 comment

Can you think of a desert? Even if you never visited one, and only saw them in the movies or read about them in the books, I’m sure the image readily jumps to the head. Sand. Heat. Hot air. Wind. More sand. More heat. More wind. Maybe a half-dried cactus. I’m sure that the luscious greens of a healthy vineyard are not part of that image.

Meanwhile, every desert has an oasis. If there is water, nothing stops beautiful greens from prospering in the desert. Desert doesn’t mean only heat. It is hot during the day, but cold during the night – and the diurnal shift – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperatures during the day – is beneficial for all the plants. If you are into the wine, I’m sure you heard of the importance of the diurnal shift to help build flavor in the grapes. And if we are talking about grapes, let me mention yet another benefit of the dry, arid air – it helps to avoid many diseases in the vineyard, such as mildew.

Let me ask you another question. Have you tried desert wines? The wines produced in the vineyards surrounded by desert? Before you will be quick to say “no”, I will ask you to think again. If you had wines from Argentina or Chile, there is a very good chance those wines came from the desert vineyards – Leyda Valley and the Atacama in Chile are nothing but desert; Uco Valley, Salta and overall large portions of Mendoza in Argentina are nothing but the desert. So yes, I believe you have. And today I want to bring to your attention yet another example of desert wines, these ones coming from the US – Aridus Wine Company in Arizona.

Source: Aridus Wine Company

Source: Aridus Wine Company

Aridus (Latin for dry or arid) started from purchasing 40 acres of land on Turkey Creek in the southeast corner of the Arizona state in the foothills of Chiricahua Mountain, at an elevation of 5,200 feet.

In 2012, Aridus opened its cellar doors, after refurbishing an old 28,000 sq. ft. apple warehouse (it was done so well that in 2014 Aridus was honored with the Design Excellence award for sustainability). The Aridus wines were made with the grapes brought from the vineyards in Arizona, New Mexico, and California; the cellar also served as a custom crush facility. Interestingly enough, this is not my first encounter with Aridus – back in 2014, while attending my first wine bloggers conference in Santa Barbara, I had 2013 Aridus Viognier presented during the speed tasting session, which was my first time tasting a wine from Arizona – and it was a very impressive wine.

Aridus started planting white grapes at its estate vineyard in 2015, with the first estate harvest taking place in 2017. The red grapes were planted from 2017 through 2020, and Aridus is planning to gradually increase the proportion of the wines made exclusively from the estate fruit every year. The plantings currently include Malvasia Bianca, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Tempranillo, Petite Verdot, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano, Petite Sirah, and Malbec, so nobody needs to worry about the range of Aridus estate wines.

Lisa Strid, who just celebrated her 5th year as the Aridus winemaker, definitely appreciates the unique challenges of working at the desert winery. Finding rattlesnakes, owls, roadrunners, hawks, and javelinas on the crash pad might be the least of her problems. Monsoons, strong rains and winds which run seasonally from mid-June through mid-September, represent a much bigger issue, as they have the potential to inflict a lot of damage on the grapes, especially when rain also comes with the hail.

But – it might be all well worth it as long as you can produce good wines. Based on the two wines I tasted, these desert vineyards deserve the full attention of wine lovers.

First, I was blown away by the Sauvignon Blanc – here are my notes:

2020 Aridus Sauvignon Blanc Arizona (12.6% ABV, $28)
Straw pale
White peach, guava, intense, round, inviting
Beautiful bright tropical fruit on the palate, fresh, crisp, good acidity, generous
8, this is summer in the bottle. New World Sauvignon Blanc “in your face”. “I’m bright, I’m beautiful, and you know that”.

Then the Aridus Malbec was perfectly on point:

2019 Aridus Malbec American (13.6% ABV, $36, 95% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 15 months in French oak barrels, New Mexico fruit)
Dark garnet, almost black
Cassis, a hint of bell pepper, iodine, a touch of minerality
More cassis on the palate, both berries and leaves, soft, velvety, crisp acidity, long finish
8, excellent

Thinking about analogies, both wines are perfectly New World in style, without going overboard and losing their balance. The Sauvignon Blanc was somewhere between Californian and Chilean renditions with all of its bright fruit – yes, if you are craving the restraint of Cloudy Bay, this is not your wine – but if you want to simply brighten up your day, that would be a perfect pick.

And the Aridus Malbec was reminiscent of the best mountain desert Malbecs from Argentina – Amalaya, Casarena, and many others, again, fresh and well balanced.

Will the desert wines be the next rave? I’m bad at predictions, so I really can’t tell you that. But you are welcome to try answering this question on your own simply by finding the bottle of Aridus wine and giving it a try. Once you do, let’s compare notes. Cheers!

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