Arizona Wine? A Conversation with Chateau Tumbleweed (Wine Traveler)
by Adrian Prieto
Arizona is a hot and dry desert. Often, that brown stretch of dirt you fly over on your way to a more coastal destination. Arizona certainly has a perception — a dry pile of sand and earth with the occasional desert mountains thrown in. If that doesn’t sound ideal for growing wine grapes, that’s because it’s not.
In most American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), there are different pockets of terrain. There are climates, microclimates, mesoclimates, and specific sites—or terroirs—that lend themselves to the development of beautiful wines. Where does Arizona come in? There are a few places in Arizona that do have ideal geology, enough rain, and optimal sunlight; there are three locations in which all of the wines from Arizona are sourced. Two, Willcox and Sonoita, are official AVAs, and one is very close to being the third, the Verde Valley.
Here, higher elevations, unique geologies, and more mild climates lend themselves to grapes such as Vermentino, Viognier, Sangiovese, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more. Overall, there are over 100 producers, over 1,000 acres planted (devoted to wine grape production), and producers with a wild west attitude, if you will, devoted to figuring out what grape varieties are well-suited to their terroir, in order to make stunning wines.
Chateau Tumbleweed opened five years ago, with a physical tasting room and production facility in Clarkdale, Arizona, although their first vintage was 2011, making their wines out of a cooperative space nearby. It’s an hour and 45 minutes north of Phoenix, and a half-hour west of Sedona. After making wine at the cooperative, the four friends and owners, Joe Bechard, Kris Pothier, Kim Koistinen, and Jeff Hendricks, started what is now Chateau Tumbleweed.
Let’s get to know Arizona wine and Chateau Tumbleweed better.
Winetraveler: Why Arizona for wine? People assume it’s a hot and dry desert that is too arid and sunny for growing wine grapes. Can you talk to us about the vineyards that you work with? It seems that many of the vineyards you work with are at a higher elevation. Why is that and what impact does that have on the wine?
Chateau Tumbleweed (CT): The majority of Arizona’s vineyards are at high elevations that range from 3,500 to over 5,000 feet. This is a true wine frontier and that appeals to many Arizona winegrowers and winemakers. Arizona wines tend to have more of an Old-World feeling to them than people might expect. The constant battle for nutrients at high-elevation vineyards means that the vine works hard to divert energy from grape production to simple survival, which reduces the overall yield of the vine. These low-yielding vines give the surviving fruit more character of a higher quality. While blazing hot temperatures characterize dry and dusty days, night temperatures drop drastically, often reaching the low 50s throughout the summer. These intense diurnal shifts force grapes to ripen slowly because a drop in temperature halts sugar production. The wines created from this high-elevation fruit aren’t too jammy or concentrated, they tend to be fresh and more focused, with a nice balance of fruit, spice, and savory characters that ties in nicely with the wines’ slightly grittier, grippier tannins.
Winetraveler: What’s the philosophy here at Chateau Tumbleweed? What’s most important to Chateau Tumbleweed? The wine? The people? The processes? The vineyards?
CT: Our main goal is to highlight the fun and freeing aspect of wine and focus on putting that energy into every aspect of Chateau Tumbleweed. We are serious about the winemaking but never take ourselves too seriously and we work hard to create a vibe that is inclusive and open. This is an intense industry and it is very important to realize the need for flexibility, endurance, guts and humor; wine is supposed to be fun, not a status symbol. We have been lucky to draw in people who understand these principles to our business.
Winetraveler: Do your wines have a style?
CT: Our wines have a house style. We generally aim for fresh and bright wines. We don’t pick too ripe and try to keep the wine from being too monochromatic. We believe that each vineyard and region has its own sense of place and we try our absolute best to honor and preserve it.
Whites are pressed whole cluster and fermented in stainless steel. We try to age primarily in stainless steel, but some whites will see a short time in neutral oak. We never use new oak on whites and we never perform batonnage (lees stirring). We inhibit malolactic to preserve acidity and are aiming for fresh, crisp, refreshing whites that drink well in the Arizona heat. Arizona whites generally have much more intense aromatics due to the sun and heat. It’s our challenge to make sure we get good aromatic development without going too ripe and losing too much crispness, subtlety, and nuance.
In the reds, we look for a balanced complexity of characters, not concentration of a particular note. We usually pick reds around 24 to 25 Brix, which gives us a good core of bright fruit, but still allows the spicy and savory side to show (and alcohols generally stay in the 13.5 to 14.3 percent range). Most of our reds are fermented with about 10 to 25 percent whole clusters. This adds more spice and a savory, herbal note while also giving the fruit a little “lift.” We don’t age too long. We want our wines to taste good while young, but they still need a few years to truly open. Most reds are aged about 11 months, while about 15 to 20 percent of our production is held for 18 months in oak (generally bigger for more tannic varieties like tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon & cabernet franc that need a little more time to soften). We try not to hammer our wines with oak, aiming for about 20 to 25 percent new oak or something comparable. We think that level of oak adds another layer to the wine without dominating the wine. Chateau Tumbleweed uses primarily French oak from the best of the best cooperages we can find. Some “bigger” varieties like tempranillo, malbec & cabernet sauvignon will get Eastern European oak (Hungarian, Romanian, Carpathian).
Winetraveler: Which varieties do well in the vineyards? Which grapes do you most enjoy working with? If you had to choose your favorite red varieties that are grown in Arizona, what would they be and why?
CT: Rhône varieties have been very popular in Arizona for the past 10 to 15 years. They match well with the Arizona character, but some varieties (especially syrah and grenache) can struggle in the acidity department. There seems to be a growing interest in higher-acid varieties. Graciano and aglianico have both been pleasant surprises in that regard. Sangiovese is another varietal we’re really enjoying. Merlot and cabernet franc sound like weird choices, but they both have high acid, bright red fruit, grippy tannins and restraint that can be pretty compelling. We have a lot of trial and error still to do here, especially in regard to whites. There seems to have been less experimenting and fewer plantings of whites in general. We’ll always love Arizona viognier, but along with roussanne it can struggle. The wines can get soft and almost waxy if the grapes are left to hang too long. Chardonnay is more exciting in Arizona than we might care to admit. In good years, it can be more restrained than one might expect. There is also a fair amount of riesling and sauvignon blanc. Picpoul blanc has been gaining in popularity recently. Same with vermentino.
Winetraveler: I’m coming to Arizona, specifically to try Arizona wine for the first time. What do I need to know? Where do I need to go? And what do I need to drink when I’m there?
CT: Arizona isn’t just a giant sand dune! We were blown away by the geological diversity when we moved here. It’s a big state and right now, there are three major growing regions: The Sonoita AVA, the Willcox AVA and the soon-to-be Verde Valley AVA.
Most fruit is grown in the Willcox AVA of southeastern Arizona. Kansas Settlement in Cochise County is probably the “hub” of that AVA and the fruit from the region has a similar thread. There are quite a few good producers in the area. The Willcox AVA stretches north of the town of Willcox into Graham County. In Graham County, the weather is a little cooler and fruit ripens two or three weeks behind Kansas Settlement. There are also quite a few vineyards south of Willcox and in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains.
Sonoita is quite a bit cooler than Willcox and influenced by very different weather patterns. There are fewer wineries in that AVA, but it still houses some of our most prominent producers.
Both regions are large, remote and rural. Tasting more than a few wineries there will take a couple days. Visitors should plan a trip that includes tasting and enjoying some of the history and the beautiful countryside of the area. It’s smart to do some research beforehand to try and determine which wineries you want to visit as there are a lot of styles and approaches in Arizona. Some of our favorites down there are Callaghan Vineyards, Dos Cabezas Wineworks and Rune Wines in Sonoita. In Willcox, there’s Sand-Reckoner, Bodega Pierce, Pillsbury Wine Company, Carlson Creek Vineyards, and several of their neighbors are turning out some great wines.
The Verde Valley is small in terms of vineyard acreage, but there are quite a few wineries up here. It is more centrally located (between Phoenix & Flagstaff) and we tend to get a lot more visitors. A lot of people like to get out of the Phoenix heat and wine country is always a few degrees cooler. There are a lot of tasting rooms and it’s quite possible to visit more than a few in one day. There are also more lodging and culinary options than the other 2 AVA’s. Some of our favorites up here include The D.A. Ranch, Caduceus/Merkin, Page Springs Cellars, Burning Tree Cellars, and Bodega Pierce.
There are still other vineyards outside of these three regions; growers are tackling new frontiers. The most important thing when visiting Arizona wines is to have an open mind and be willing to try new wines, you will not be disappointed.
Winetraveler: How do you measure success? What does the future look like for Chateau Tumbleweed and the Arizona wine scene in general?
CT: Opinion has changed drastically in the past ten years. Success isn’t about big scores or awards, it’s about making a special, local product with character and integrity, and reaching enough people that we can continue to grow, learn, and adapt. It’d be nice if people counted us among the state’s best producers, but hopefully, in the very least, we’re making the kind of juice that represents the state well. Our hope is that we can grow from our current 4,000 case production to 6,000 cases, continue to create jobs and opportunities for our employees, and be positive advocates for wine in our state. Who knows, maybe we’ll even plant our own vineyard someday soon?
Winetraveler: You’re stuck on a remote island. You can only choose one song to play on repeat (as much as you want!), and you can only choose ONE bottle of your wine (any bottle, any vintage, but an unlimited amount). What do you choose for each and why?
CT: Equinox by John Coltrane and our 2018 Cimarron Vineyard Aglianico. It’s a nice, sad song to sip with a well-structured, high acid wine all by yourself.