Geologic cross section of the Verde Valley. Billions of years in the making, and creates a fantastic glass of wine.
The Verde Valley forms one of the most dramatic wine-growing regions here in Arizona, and is also host to some of the state’s most unique geology. The landscape of the Verde Valley has been about a billion years in the making, playing host to deep oceans, shallow seas, vast deserts, unique volcanoes, ephemeral lakes, and dramatic mountain building events. It is this unique combination of events that has lead to a most magnificent growing region. It is also the area which I know best; since I can see it when I look outside my window. Therefore, I must also apologize, as this discussion will likely be the longest.
Let’s start at the beginning, in an ancient tropical sea. The Judith Block owned by Caduceus, while not the oldest vineyard in the valley (that honor belongs to Echo Canyon, described below) is located on some of the oldest rocks in the valley, namely the Martin Formation limestones laid down in the deep seas, and interspersed with inclusions of the Cleopatra Tuff; however, the small vineyard located at the Honeymoon Cottage near the Douglas Mansion has the strange honor of being entirely on jumbled remains of the Hickey Basalt, from much further ahead in time, which lies directly atop gabbro deposits which are even older than the Cleopatra Tuff. These are the remains of ancient seas, and ancient island arcs which were even older still. It is these island arcs which form a greater part of the basement rock for Arizona; pieces of ancient landscapes, –the whole reason for the copper mines which made this town once such a rich place. They formed about 1.5 billion years ago during the Precambrian, as a giant volcanic caldera in a tropical sea; the limestones were laid down much later, in tropical deepwater oceans. In some other parts of town, the remains of the ancient sea, and the life which once filled them, can be found; crinoids and brachiopods.
There are a few private vineyards which are planted in the Martin and Redwall limestones, scattered throughout the Verde Valley on the slopes above Cottonwood, but these formations, from deep water and shallow water tropical seas, largely leave the story of Arizona wine–at least for now. (They’ll re-appear when we discuss the terroir of the Chino Valley area, later on.)
I am particularly interested in how the fogs of the summer monsoon will affect the Nebbiolo grapes which Maynard has recently planted in the Judith block; the grape, after all, comes from the same word as the mountain fogs which regularly frequent the Piedmont areas of Italy. In that sense, the terroir of Jerome itself is more reminiscent of the Piedmont, in Italy; rich, dark, sensuous, and volcanic in nature, interspersed with a hint of the ancient sea.
Echo Canyon vineyard; a fantastic cross-section of 275 million years of history. At the bottom, the Bell Rock member of the Schnebly Hill Formation, then the basalts of House Mountain, and finally the limestones of the Verde formation.
Let us move forward in time; to the ebb and flow of the Pedregosa sea, which helped to create the famous the red rocks of Sedona during the middle Permian, about 270-275 million years ago. These rocks form the shoreline, where the desert and the sea fought for supremacy for five million years; sometimes the sea rose as far as where Boynton Canyon is today–this layer is marked by the Fort Apache limestone member of the Schnebly Hill formation. Eventually, the desert won, and the victory of the desert is marked by the aeolian (wind-borne) sediments of the Sycamore pass member of the Schnebly Hill formation, and the bone-white Coconino Sandstone.
There are no vineyards, as far as I’m aware, growing on the Coconino Sandstone; it’s too high, and too vertical in the Verde Valley. Few vineyards are growing directly on the shoreline of the ancient Pedregosa sea; Sycamore Canyon Vineyard, as well as few private vineyards near Red Rocks state park are doing so, along with Echo Canyon, the oldest vineyard in Arizona, pictured above. We’ve covered one of the intensely terroir-driven wines from Echo Canyon before: http://azwinemonk.com/2014/10/06/echo-canyon-winery-2003-famous-ranches-of-arizona-sedonatage-red-blend/. The scent of the ancient sea appears in many of the wines made from vines growing directly on the ancient sea. Actually, as we see in the image above, the canyon walls behind the old vineyards of Echo Canyon show the nexus of the chief influence of most Verde Valley Terroir: House Mountain.
Grenache vines at Page Springs Cellars; House mountain in the background
13-15 million years ago, the landscape where the Verde Valley is today was a volcanic field. These same deposits are also found on the top of Mingus Mountain. One of the last of these series of eruptions created the shield volcano that is House Mountain. The particularly interesting thing is that it erupted right at the edge of where the Mogollon Rim was at the time. This explains why House mountain looks so odd with half of the mountain missing: that half of the mountain was never there to begin with. Back then, you could have stood down on the summit of the Mogollon Rim, and stared into the erupting caldera. It would have been an absolutely fantastic sight to behold. Since then, The Mogollon Rim has receded at a rate of 1 foot per 600 years.
But the story of House Mountain doesn’t end there–at first glance, it seems a remarkably well-preserved volcano to be as old as 13 million years, and if you look at the flanks, you can discover sediments from the Verde Formation; and even in a few places on the summit. So, why are there lake sediments on a volcano? That has everything to do with the final stage of the story.
After the eruptions of House Mountain ceased, the mountain range of the Black Hills thrust up, and the eruptions at a different volcano, Hackberry Mountain, on the other side of the Verde Valley, acted together to block off the drainage of the ancestral Verde Valley. This dammed the river, and the intermittent lake which formed deposited hundreds of feet of limestone, siltstone, and evaporate deposits which eventually became the Verde Formation. Eventually, the lake buried House Mountain entirely and backed up against the red rocks of Sedona. Slowly, the ancestral Verde river created an outlet, and many of these lake sediments eroded away; but some of the calcium from that limestone infused into the volcanic soils of House Mountain. This boundary between ancient volcano and lakebed creates the jewels of Verde Valley Terroir: the estate vineyards of Page Springs, Dancing Apache, Javelina Leap, and Oak Creek vineyards are influenced by this ancient byplay of fire and water. These wines are often both spicy and with hints of minerals deposited by the ancient lakebed, all at once.
There are also a host of vineyards growing directly on the ancient lakebeds of the Verde Formation; Alcantara Vineyard and Winery, a few private vineyards in Camp Verde and Cottonwood, along with Freitas, the Marzo Block of Caduceus near House Mountain (but not on the slopes), as well as the vineyards at the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai College.
Area of the world with most similar terroir to the Verde Valley in General: The Beqaa/Bekkah Valley, in Lebanon, as well as nearby areas in Syria has terroir notes remarkably similar to the Verde Valley. So similar, in fact, I don’t think I could tell a Lebanese Syrah apart from a Verde Valley one in a blind tasting! As mentioned above, the terroir notes of Jerome are reminiscent of the Piedmont, making them the exception.
Vineyards which are growing in the Verde Valley include (or have included): Echo Canyon Vineyard, Alcantara Vineyard and Winery, Freitas Vineyard, Dancing Apache Vineyards, Caduceus Cellars, Page Springs Cellars, Javelina Leap, Oak Creek Vineyards, Sycamore Canyon Winery and the vineyards associated with the Southwest Wine Center, at Yavapai College. While Cellar 433 controls the vineyard associated with the Honeymoon Cottage, they produce no wines from it; so far, the only vineyard growing in Jerome which is producing wine for public consumption is Caduceus. There are also a whole host of private vineyards in the area; small operations consisting of only a hundred vines or so. I really hope the amount of vines in the area dramatically increases, as I feel this is one of the most fascinating wine-growing regions in the state. Furthermore, most of the wineries in Arizona have their tasting rooms here, so it provides a fantastic backdrop for your tasting.