Exploring the Diverse, Terroir-Driven Wines of the American Southwest

Woman pouring glass of wine on edge of Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
There's more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon./Getty

If you find the notion of wines from the American Southwest perplexing, you aren’t alone. The arid, topographically diverse states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma, are still considered “up-and-coming” as far as wine production is concerned. This is despite grapes having been turned into wine there for decades.

Thirsty for more? Here’s your primer on the wines of the Southwest.

Meet the Producers That are Redefining American Wine

Arizona

Arizona and its range of microclimates are divided into three main regions, two of which are American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Verde Valley, Sonoita AVA and Willcox AVA. The majority of the state’s vineyards are in Sonoita and Willcox, close to Tucson. Sonoita is the older of the two AVAs, established in 1985, while Willcox earned its designation in 2016. Both are home to many of the state’s 100-plus wineries.

Winemaking has a long and storied history in Arizona. In the early 1700s, Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit missionary, grew grapes for wine. But it was not until the 1970s that Arizona’s wine culture took off. Dr. Gordon Dutt, a scientist from the University of Arizona, began to conduct experiments to prove the state’s suitability for winemaking. He later established Vina Sonoita Vineyards, the state’s first modern winery.

Dutt discovered that Arizona possesses the same unique terra rossa soil, a loamy surface with red clay in the middle and lime on the bottom, as France’s Burgundy region. This makes Arizona well suited for terroir-driven winemaking.

Winemakers like Matt Raica, of Arizona Stronghold, have been successful in grape growing for more than a decade. They plant numerous varieties and harvest them in the state, including such diverse grapes as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Syrah, Riesling, Mourvèdre, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The winery, at around 4,000 feet above sea level, is right outside of Sedona.

Vineyards of San Marcos for Texas wine
Vineyards in Texas Hill Country/Getty

Texas

One of the United States’ oldest wine growing regions, wine production in Texas predates California. Franciscan priests were responsible for the state’s first vines in the mid-1600s, which were used to create wines for religious ceremonies.

Wine production lost favor here as a result of Prohibition, but it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s in the Texas High Plains AVA.

Today, the state has eight AVAs. The Texas High Plains AVA, in northwest Texas, is the most concentrated and grows 85% of all the wine grapes in the state. In part, this is because the southern part of Texas has suffered from both the grapevine-killer Pierce’s Disease and crippling humidity in recent years.

In the Texas High Plains AVA, the family-owned Lost Draw Cellars, located in Fredericksburg, has produced wine since 2014, with a focus on varietal wines.

Is Texas the Next Great Wine Region to Watch For?

Years earlier, in 2008, partners William Blackmon and Chris Brundrett opened William Chris Vineyards, right outside of Fredericksburg. The winery both grows and sources fruit from vineyards in the state, and has become an enormously popular, critical success.

“We’re passionate about producing wines that express the vineyards and terroir of Texas,” says Brundrett. “We strive to work with the best growers in the state, as well [as] farm the best grapes that are soulful and intentional. Great winegrowing is the key to achieving our style of low-impact, low-intervention winemaking.”

In the Texas High Plains AVA, sandy loam and limestone dominate, as do sunny days and cool nights. Because of the warm climate, the harvest begins in July, months earlier than most other American and Old World appellations. But, because of the state’s vastness, climate and soil type differ dramatically by region.

The eight AVAs of Texas include Bell Mountain, Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, Texas Hill Country as well as Escondido Valley, Texas High Plains, Texas Davis Mountains, Texoma and Mesilla Valley, which is mostly in New Mexico.

There are more than 400 wineries that operate in Texas, with wine produced from grapes that include Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot.

Truck at St Clair Winery for New Mexico Wine
St. Clair Winery in New Mexico/Photo by BHammond/Alamy

New Mexico

Wine has been produced here since at least 1629, when García de Zúñiga, a Franciscan friar, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchín monk, planted grapes in Santa Fe. There are currently three AVAs: Middle Rio Grande Valley, Mesilla Valley AVA (which runs into Texas) and Mimbres Valley.

During the late 1800s, New Mexico produced almost 1 million gallons of wine. Those numbers declined after flooding from the Rio Grande destroyed neighboring vineyards.

Since then, the wine scene has had its ups and downs, but experienced a resurgence in the late 1970s when La Viña Winery debuted. It’s now the oldest continuously operating winery in the state, followed by La Chiripada Winery.

New Mexico's Deep Winemaking History

Some of the most influential people in New Mexico, however, came to the state from France during the mid-1980s.

Hervé Lescombes arrived from Burgundy and founded St. Clair Winery in 1984. The same year, Gilbert Gruet established Gruet Winery, in north-central New Mexico, near Albuquerque. It produces traditional-method sparkling wines from Champagne varieties.

Today, New Mexico is also home to well-received wineries like Vivác. Under the guidance of Chris, Liliana, Jesse and Michele Padberg, it has produced wines at high-elevation vineyards since 1998.

“Our winemakers were born and raised in northern New Mexico, where they chose to return,” says Michele Padberg. “They have dedicated themselves to researching varietals that can thrive at our arid, 6,000-foot altitude, and have had excellent success with Petit Verdot, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.”

A little more than a decade after Vivác debuted, Noisy Water Winery opened, also at high elevation. Noisy Water is now planted to 75 acres of Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery is located about three hours southeast of Gruet.

Important grapes planted in New Mexico include Syrah, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Colorado vineyards in front of Mount Lincoln
The Grand Valley vineyards in Colorado and Mount Lincoln/Getty

Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah

These three states produce considerably less wine than their Southwestern neighbors.

Colorado has two designated AVAs: Grand Valley and West Elks, which are home to the majority of the state’s vines. Colorado has some of the world’s highest-elevation vineyards. With more than 170 wineries, the state has expanded its reach in wine production. Common grapes grown include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay and Riesling.

Oklahoma’s wine trade began in the 1920s, but it suffered considerably due to the Dust Bowl and Prohibition. The state is currently home to only about 50 wineries. Its sole AVA is Ozark Mountain, which extends into Arkansas and Missouri. Grapes grown in Oklahoma include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Despite the state’s teetotaler fame, Utah has had grapevines since the late 1800s. The industry, however, didn’t take off until the 1980s, when winemakers began take advantage of the state’s elevation and cool, dry climate. Utah has no AVAs, and winemaking is still considered a nascent industry there.

Published on March 26, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics