There's an ideal range of elevations for growing wine grapes in Arizona.
Depending on location, from about
3,000 feet up to around 5200 feet, most varieties thrive. In this range
wildlife with a taste for grapes are generally the biggest problem.
Above this range short summers and late spring
frosts make growing grapes difficult, but not impossible. Many books have been written on the topic of cold
climate viticulture. However, if you're below 3,000 feet there's little information available. Table grapes have a
long track record in the lower deserts, but there just hasn't been much interest in growing wine
grapes at these elevations. Frankly, many have assumed that it wasn't
are some significant challenges in the lower
deserts. The intense mid-summer heat and low humidity can cause grapes
to dessicate or sunburn, acidity to drop too far, and grapes to ripen too quickly, leaving color and
lacking. Our mild winters aren't cold enough to provide an adequate
dormancy period which can cause uneven ripening and impact fruit
quality. And in some locations monsoon rains can promote fungal
not much has been published about desert viticulture, there
are some recommendations to consider. The Master
Gardener program at the University of Arizona recommends Barbera,
Petite Sirah, French Columbard, Emerald Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.
can also look to southern Europe for ideas. Varieties from Italy, southern France,
Spain, and Portugal are good candidates. There are likely several good desert grapes among the thousands of
varieties indigenous to Greece. Unfortunately, the quarantine requirements make importing
new plant material difficult.
The search for an ideal desert grape has taken some in the direction of hybrid and native varieties. Experimental
plantings of Léon Millot in west Texas and Clinton in Scottsdale have both done well. These varieties ripen so
early that they miss much of the heat. Black
Spanish, an accidental hybrid, is favored by some desert growers as
Despite these successes, native and hybrid grapes don't always
thrive here and some exhibit undesirable characteristics. For example, Concord
Seedless produces small seeds when grown in our heat.
you're looking for a good table grape, Thompson
Seedless reigns supreme. Flame Seedless does well here as well, and if you
want a native (Concord like) variety, Mars Seedless is showing promise.
Generally wine grape varieties that are well suited to the lower deserts have:
single most important attribute seems to be vigor. A vigorous vine can
produce a more dense canopy (leaves and canes) which can
shade grapes and provide protecton from the sun.
Nebbiolo and Tempranillo are examples of vigorous vines that thrive in our climate.
- More vigorous growth.
- Durability, for the lack of a better word.
- Good Color/Tannin development.
- Higher than average acidity.
- Less compact clusters.
varieties seem to do well here without a dense
canopy. Their grapes continue ripening slowly
without showing signs of dessication or heat stress. This
may be due to the thickness of the skins, the size of the berries, or
the ability of the vine to stay ahead of transpiration.
Among those that seem to hold up well are Petite
Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is an unusual
the desert and a wine made exclusively from it would likely not
compare well to one from a more moderate climate, but in limited trials it has ripened
well with few issues.
some respects white wine grapes can be less problematic. Uneven ripening can cause a few green or raisined berries at
harvest, but with whites this may actually add a bit of complexity. The
heat may however reduce
volatile aromatics, those molecules that make a wine smell and taste so
good. Not surprisingly Muscat is a popular grape in desert
vineyards; It's likely the most aromatic white grape on the planet.
Low acidity can be a real problem with many varieties. Of course
this can be addressed pre-ferment by the addition of tartaric
acid, but a number of desert grape growers are trying
Barbera for this reason. This is a red grape from Italy that's known
for producing high acid wines, and the early results here are good.
We may never find an
ideal desert wine grape. Ultimately we may need to develop blends that
mitigate issues with desert grown grapes. Some
varieties, like Grenache and Nebbiolo do well here, but they can be
severely lacking in color. Tempranillo loves the heat and produces
dark, flavorful fruit, but the acidity can be far too low at harvest. Blending may provide a solution.
time we may find several wine grape varieties that out perform all
others, or we may develop our own outstanding blends, but already there are a
number of varieties that are showing good results.
For more information please visit www.azwinemakers.com.
grapes in the lower deserts of Arizona.
Cabernet Sauvignon can handle the heat. (althernate
.Tempranillo has a long track record in southern Europe.
Barbera, a promising variety for desert vineyards. (alternate
(Barbera photos courtesy of Brett Cook