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Ultimate Guide to the American Southwest Wine Region

Vineyards, like the one pictured here in Southern California, can be found throughout the American Southwest. See our collection of wine pictures
iStockphoto/Windzepher

­What comes to mind when you think of the American Southwest? Old movie images of cowboys. Arid desert. Green mountain slopes. Sprawling cities with friendly, laid-back populations. Whatever you think of, you're prob­ably right: the American Southwest is incredibly diverse.

For the purposes of wine, the American Southwest region consists of six states: New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colora­do, Oklahoma and Texas. (That's according to the Southwest Wine Competition, held every year in Taos, NM [source: Toast of Taos].) That means the region encompasses immense geographic variety. You can find bamboo forest and rocky cliffs in the same national park in Texas, so just imagine what you'll find in six large Western states [source: Big Bend National Park]:

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  • arid desert basins
  • high, snowy peaks of the Rockies
  • scrub forests of oak and mesquite
  • windblown prairies
  • redwood forests
  • canyons gouged so deep into the earth that their bottoms only see the sun at noon
  • humid Gulf Coast beaches

­Obviously, there's a lot to explore. So much so, that wine aficionados touring the area could plan their trip around a local landmark or event, suc­h as:

  • The Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, Arizona's Wilcox Wine and Art Festival or the Aspen Food and Wine Classic
  • A walk along the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail
  • A drive along Route 66
  • Arizona's Sonoma County Grape Camp, where you can stomp on your own grapes

In this article, we'll investigate the eclectic history and challenging agriculture of the American Southwest wine region and look at some of the standouts among its many up-and-coming wines.

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T­he history of wine in the United States begins with the American Southwest. The oldest wine-growing region in the country is in New Mexico, where 16th century Spanish missionaries planted vines for sacramental wine [sources: VIVA, NM Wine Country].

The missionaries also brought conflict. The early years of the American Southwest were bloody and turbulent. Missionaries attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Conquistadors, in the familiar pursuit of "gold, glory and God," often resorted to brutal methods to suppress the native population. Natives responded in kind, with violence and at least one unified uprising.

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At their peak, Spain's territories stretched from what is now Oregon down across Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and into Central America [source: U.S. History]. But in the 19th century, came threats to Spanish supremacy: Mexican independence (in 1821) and the westward expansion of the United States.

Land-hungry settlers poured into the new territories, so eager they earned the nickname of "Sooners" in Oklahoma [source: Netstate]. They, too, displaced Native Americans, with policies such as the notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830. And as they moved west, they clashed with Spain and then Mexico over land ownership.

The turning point was the Mexican-American War, fought between 1846 and 1848. The increasingly bitter debate over slavery, the desire for access to the Pacific Ocean and Mexican civil strife culminated in the annexation of lands that are now parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 gave the Southwest its present-day borders [source: PBS].

Today, the culture of the Southwest is as varied as its geography. Along the Rio Grande, you'll find pueblos, missions and Spanish speakers; New Mexico is still officially bilingual. Elsewhere, you'll see ranches, cowboys, oil wells -- the iconic images of Texas. Austin has a thriving, bohemian music scene, and the arts flourish in Taos and Silver City, New Mexico. Other areas are corporate and conservative.

What can unite such disparate groups? Well, the love of wine is a good start. Read on.

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Nineteenth-century Arizona settlers­ found wild grapes in their new home. The area's dry soil and warm temperatures were a natural fit for viticulture [source: Laudig]. But in many areas, commercial wine production is a relatively recent development, something that only started in earnest in the 1970s or 80s [sources: VIVA, Laudig].

The American Southwest's extreme climates pose special challenges for wine growers. Viticulture in desert areas -- where rainfall is less than 10 inches (25 cm) a year -- often depends on irrigation. At high elevations, like those in Utah, Colorado and parts of Arizona and New Mexico, temperatures can change dramatically between day and night. Even on mild days, growers must guard against frost damage with tarps, fans and thermometers. Parts of Arizona and New Mexico are subject to seasonal monsoons, so vineyards must be constructed to maximize water use and minimize damage from winds and mold [source: Laudig].

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Extremes can be useful, to some extent. As the Phoenix News's Michele Laudig notes, "It's common industry knowledge that the best wines come from vines that are a little bit stressed out" [source: Laudig].

But there's a big difference between "a little bit stressed out" and "destroyed by a windstorm" -- which is what happened to Girouard Vines in Oklahoma. The only grapes that survived were staked to heavy "cowboy" trellises -- specially rigged gateposts [source: Ervin]. Indeed, the long tradition of pioneer ingenuity seems to have many applications in Southwestern viticulture. For StableRidge Vineyard, near Stroud, Oklahoma, a tornado turned out to be an excellent opportunity. It cleared a neighboring piece of property so thoroughly that vintners Don and Annetta Neal had no problems purchasing it and converting it to vineyards [source: Lowe].

Whereas aridity is a mixed blessing for much of the Southwest, Oklahoma has the opposite problem: humidity. The grapes here are vulnerable to the fungus called black rot. Girouard Vines now cross-pollinates standard wine grapes (Vinifera) with local wild grapes. The hybrids are more resilient to black rot, and they have an unusually high acid content, which makes for good blending [source: Ervin].

On the next page, we'll take a look at some notable wines of the Southwest.

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The six states of the American Southwest produce a vast variety of wine, enough to ke­ep you tasting samples for a few years. Here, we present a few suggestions -- but it by no means is everything.

Texas's main wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Merlot. It also produces numerous other varieties, including Sangiovese, Syrah, Riesling, Viognier -- and a jalapeno wine [source: Texas Wine]. Val Verde Winery of Del Rio, Texas, deserves a special mention: it's been producing wine since 1833 [source: Texas Wine].

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In Arizona, vineyards are clustered in the southeast corner of the state, and the sole AVA (American Viticultural Area) is Sonoita. Try the Dos Cabezas Pinot Gris -- which has been served at the White House -- or a rare white Merlot from Charron. If you're in the mood for something sweeter, Arizona's largest winery, Kokopelli, produces numerous wines from organic fruit [source: Arizona Wines].

New Mexico has four AVAs -- Mesilla Valley, Mimbres Valley, Rio Grande Valley and Middle Rio Grande Valley. The state produces 151 different wines and almost equal numbers of reds and whites [source: American Appellation]. Try St. Clair's Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, a sparkling wine from Gruet, Milagro's Chardonnay or Old Church Road Zinfandel, or the dry fruit wines of Anasazi [sources: Heald, Landis].

Colorado has several award-winners. For a start, try Pinot Noir from the West Elks AVA, Canyon Wind's Cabernet Sauvignon, Balistreri's Syrah, a Cabernet Franc Reserve from Bookcliff or Creekside, Ptarmigan's Late Harvest Muscat, Plum Creek's Colorado Riesling or a sparkling mead from Redstone [sources: Colorado Wine, VINE].

Wine is produced on a smaller scale in Oklahoma and Utah, but the industry is expanding, and these regions are ripe for discovery. Climate conditions in Oklahoma's wine regions are similar to those of the Rhône, so it's no surprise that Oklahoma produces Rhône-style wines [source: Ervin]. In Utah, production focuses on whites, which thrive at high altitudes. Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Seyval Blanc and the lone red -- Cabernet Sauvignon -- account for most of Utah's wine. There's also a late-harvest Riesling dessert wine [source: Appellation America].

The wines of the American Southwest are proof that the pioneer spirit lives on -- practical, innovative and always a little bit different from the herd.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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