It is a little known fact, even among many wine enthusiasts, that there is a small pocket of land just northwest of Phoenix, Arizona which is home to a young but rapidly maturing wine region known as the Verde Valley. Most folks are familiar with the Willcox region of southern Arizona, but this up-and-coming center of production near Sedona is somewhat unknown to the masses, and therefore still retains much of its small town charm (and small town prices!). Nestled in the lush Verde River valley, including an adjacent pocket of green surrounding one of its tributaries known as Oak Creek, this fertile zone is capable of growing most varietals typical to North America – zinfandel, syrah, merlot and chardonnay to name a few. It spans almost 715 square miles, 80% of which is national forest land.
Now you may be asking yourself – do grapes grow in the desert? Absolutely! A look at the history of winemaking tells us that the first documented wine production took place in Armenia, Syria and Iran circa 4000 BC. The cultivation of grapes eventually spread to the Mediterranean, and from there on across the globe. But these high desert oases are the birthplace of modern winemaking. Warm dry temperatures during the day followed by much cooler nights are exactly the climate grapes crave.
The lush sanctuary of the Verde Valley, in the middle of the high Arizona desert, sits at approximately 3,200 feet and hosts optimal conditions for grape growing:
- rocky volcanic (limestone and caliche) soils provide excellent drainage
- large temperature differentials between night and day nurture sugar production
- and just enough water is accessible to keep the grapes healthy without over-saturating the soil and causing the vines’ roots to mold.
It was in the early 1600s that Spanish explorers entered the Verde Valley and planted the first grape vines, several decades before wine grapes were cultivated in California. They knew that this area would support such cultivation because there were already healthy wild grape vines growing all along the Verde River and its tributaries, including Oak Creek and Clear Creek. So much so that the Sinagua natives who lived in the area at that time referred to it not as the Verde Valley, but as “The Valley of the Grapes”! Shortly after their initial exploration, the Spanish explorers abandoned the area due to a lack of discovery of profitable mining (or so they thought – the area later became a profitable copper mining region), and the vines went untamed and unkempt for centuries.
Now almost 400 years later this region is experiencing a renaissance of wine production, as the potential of the Verde Valley oasis is being realized. Both the soil and climate have been found to mimic historic wine regions in the south of France, Spain and even northern Argentina.
The vineyards and tasting rooms in this region have an intimacy to them that makes for a rich experience. Much can be learned in just a few days about the growers, wine makers and soils of the region. And the youth of the wine culture here feels welcoming to aficionados and newcomers alike, so don’t worry if you’re not a connoisseur – you may just leave with a newfound passion to be one!
Complimenting this youthful wine region is an abundance of recreation to keep the body’s juices flowing during the day, and allow it to relax and have a well-deserved indulgence in the evening. With wineries, tasting rooms and culinary treasures abound, there are an abundance of flavors to discover on any length of stay in the Verde Valley. But don’t take my word for it – come find out for yourself!