Ultimate Guide to the American Southwest Wine Region

American Southwest Wine Region Agriculture

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].

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.