Arizona Wine Country & Wine Trails

Wine production is certainly nothing new to Arizona. It’s been going on for more than 300 years when missionary settlers first made this area their homes. For the last 40 years, Arizona has seen steady growth both in the number of vineyards and commercial wineries.

In particular, numerous varieties of grapes thrive in the southern portion of Arizona, namely within a ninety minute drive southeast of Tucson. Due to higher elevations, this part of the state is markedly cooler than Phoenix, which is typically sweltering several months per year. Elevations in parts of southern Arizona top out at 5,500 feet, bringing warm sunny days and cool nights — conditions ideal for grape cultivation.

Arizona wines are quite popular within the state, even with the close proximity of wine heavyweight California. You can pick up a bottle of Arizona wine at most large grocery stores and Arizona wines are often featured on restaurant wine menus. Arizona Wine Country, as the area of Arizona near the towns of Elgin and Sonoita is often called, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state.

Today there are nearly 50 wineries in Arizona, with the number growing. Vineyards thrive not only in the aforementioned southern part of the state, but also in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley. No matter your wine palate, you’re sure to find an Arizona wine to suit your tastes. For example, a tour of the Sonoita Wine Trail will introduce you to a surprisingly diverse and complex menu of Arizona wine, from deep, rich reds to crisp, citrusy whites.

Arizona is one of many states with a wine industry on the rise. Grapes are a value-added crop because they are low users of water and provide jobs to communities. With the United States poised to become the number one consumer of wine in the world, Arizona’s wine industry is on the cusp of greater success and a higher profile.

Arizona Wine Country

Our first visit to Arizona Wine Country was a short and enjoyable day trip. Going east/southeast from Tucson on I-10, it’s only an hour away. Exit I-10 about 20 miles east of the city at Exit 281 and proceed south on Arizona Route 83. Note the changing topography as you climb more than 2,000 feet through your journey.

Traveling south on Route 83, you’ll soon enter the charming town of Sonoita, the gateway to wine country. If you arrive around lunch time, we recommend Cafe Sonoita, on scenic Route 82 just a half-mile east of the Route 83 junction. You’ll choose from a blackboard menu, presented at your table, or the standard menu. We enjoyed a local specialty, the Hatch green chile chicken burrito and a bowl of homemade soup. You can also enjoy a glass of Arizona wine from Cafe Sonoita’s ample wine list.

Looking at the terrain in the Sonoita area, you’ll begin to understand why wine has been produced here for many years. It’s a perfect blend of medium elevation, rich soil, and low humidity. Owners of the seven wineries in this area will tell you this area is just about perfect for growing grapes.

Southern Arizona Wine Country Wineries

Let’s spend a little time at a few of this area’s wineries. As is typical with a wine trail journey, these wineries are clustered together within a few miles. We recommend a late morning stop at one or two, a break for lunch, and then more wine exploring in the afternoon.

We visited these wineries over the course of two visits, so feel free to mix and match your destinations. There’s no prescribed order, as the wineries are scattered in this pleasant, mostly rural area. No matter which you choose, you’re guaranteed a true taste of Arizona’s highly respected wine industry.

Callaghan Vineyards

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday through Sunday, Callaghan Vineyards produces premium reds and whites from its own 25-acre vineyard. Styled in Mediterranean and Spanish varieties, owner Kent Callaghan’s wines have received accolades from prominent publications like Wine Spectator and the New York Times, and have been served at the White House. Our favorite was Lisa’s White, with its spicy apple aroma and subtle rich taste of pear and grapefruit.

Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery

Canelo Hills is the product of owners Tim and Joan Mueller, who founded the operation in 2003. The Muellers were delighted to open their new tasting room in September 2007, realizing a long-term dream to own and operate their own winery. Located 7.5 miles east of the Route 83 and 82 crossroads in the small village of Elgin, Canelo Hills is open for tasting Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tim and Joan are strong supporters of local, sustainable products and host an annual Wine and Farm Festival. Current wine offerings include a Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and an especially delicious crisp Riesling.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks

Dos Cabezas is a relatively new arrival to the Sonoita-Elgin wine country, but not a newcomer to the Arizona wine scene. They’ve been producing wines since 1995, and recently moved the winery to this area from a location in the southeastern part of the state. Dos Cabezas was very proud to win two Governor’s Choice Awards in December 2007 for Arizona’s best red and white wine. Their Viogner took honors for the whites category, while their El Norte took home the award for reds. Located on Route 82, their tasting room is open Fridays through Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Make a point to try the deep, complex El Norte.

Rancho Rossa Vineyards

Rancho Rossa is one of Arizona’s largest family owned wineries, producing more than 1,200 cases per year entirely from their own fruit. Located about six miles southeast of Sonoita, they’re open for tasting Friday-Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We enjoyed their Case Cuvee, a rich chardonnay blend, as well as their Grenache, a red that’s fermented in French Oak.

Village of Elgin Winery

Village of Elgin Winery is one of the area’s original wineries. Established more than 25 years ago, Village of Elgin is well known for hosting two annual wine festivals, which take place in April and September. Offering a full and unique selection of reds and whites, Village of Elgin’s wines will please any palate. There are several unique offerings including Blanc de Merlot (a white merlot) and the Sonoita Valley Tierra Dulce, a sweet red similar to a port. Village of Elgin’s Tombstone Red, a red and white blend, is very popular as well and widely available in retail outlets.

Kief Joshua Vineyards

Another newcomer to the area is Kief-Joshua, which is located in the cluster of wineries known as “Winery Row”. It’s very close to many of the wineries listed above. Views from the tasting room are spectacular, overlooking scenic grasslands with mountains in the distance. Owner Kief Joshua Manning, who has been making wine since he was a teenager, offers a small — but impressive — list of whites and reds. Try the refreshingly citrusy Viognier, and don’t miss the intense dark cherry flavor of their Cabernet Sauvingnon. The green chile dip mix, sold in the gift shop, is also recommended.

Sonoita Vineyards

Sonoita Vineyards, founded in 1983, is the largest winery in the area. For a change of pace, try their Sonora Rossa. It’s a spicy light red wine that’s best served slightly chilled, perfect with Italian food.

Arizona Wine Trails

Arizona has three official wine trails, two in the southern part of the state and one in the north central area near Sedona.

Arizona also has one American Viticulture Area, or AVA, which is defined as an area having a unique climate, soil conditions, and topography which clearly differentiate it from any other area. Arizona’s AVA is the southern Sonoita region.

Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail

Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail is Arizona’s original wine trail, and probably its most well known. Visitors have been coming to this area of the state to visit wineries for well over thirty years. The trail is compact in terms of driving distance, but it encompasses 10 wineries as of this writing, so it’s too much to do in one day. It’s such an enjoyable area to visit, though, and we’ve found it ideal to combine with a visit to the arts and mining town of Bisbee, a bit farther southeast. Some of the more prominent wineries on the Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail include the Village of Elgin Winery, Sonoita Vineyards, and Canelo Hills Winery. (Under new ownership as of 2013, Canelo is now part of Flying Leap Vineyards.)

Willcox Wine Trail

Willcox Wine Trail is located in the extreme southeastern portion of Arizona, just off Interstate 10, near the New Mexico border. In fact, it’s an ideal stopping point if you’re planning to visit New Mexico, which has one of the most vibrant wine industries in this part of the United States.

The Willcox Wine Trail spotlights six wineries, three of which are just a few short minutes from historic downtown Willcox.

Northern Arizona Wine Trail

The area of Arizona around Sedona, Jerome, and Cottonwood has long been popular with tourists for its stunning natural beauty and temperate climate, particularly compared with summers in Phoenix. This area is becoming well known for grape growing, due to rich valleys and higher elevations.

Nine wineries are located in this immediate area (with more on the way), and together they comprise the Northern Arizona Wine Trail. The area is about two hours north of Phoenix via Interstate 17.


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