Idaho's Snake River Valley coming into its own

By Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman, Northwest WineApril 20, 2011 

Let's get this out of the way: No potato wine is made in Idaho.

The Gem State is famous for its potatoes, but thanks to the increasing quality of Idaho vintners its wine industry is growing in stature and size.

Just three years ago Idaho had 32 wineries. That has grown to 43, and inquiries about starting wineries come to the Idaho Wine Commission in Boise on a weekly basis.

Most of the wineries are in the Snake River Valley, primarily around Caldwell and Nampa. A few are in the panhandle, and the Palouse region promises to be a growth area.

About 1,600 acres of vineyards are in Idaho, primarily in the Caldwell-Nampa region. The largest vineyard, Skyline, is 450 acres and owned by Precept Wines of Seattle.

Idaho's oldest and largest winery is Ste. Chapelle in Caldwell, which started in 1976 and is owned by Ascentia Wine Estates in California. Thanks to Ste. Chapelle, riesling is the state's largest variety, though chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot also are important.

Moya Shatz, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, said Rhone varieties such as syrah and viognier grow also extremely well in the Snake River Valley.

"I think that's what we'll be known for eventually," she said.

The Snake River Valley is high desert, with elevations between 1,500 and 3,300 feet above sea level, much higher than other West Coast wine regions. This gives Idaho a distinct advantage, as warmer days and cooler nights help retain grapes' important natural acidity and give the resulting wines better balance. Shatz pointed out that while Idaho's growing season is a little shorter than Washington's, the Snake River Valley has few issues getting grapes ripe.

Here are a few Snake River Valley wines we have tasted recently:

Ste. Chapelle 2009 Winemaker's Series dry gewürztraminer, Snake River Valley, $9: There's a big hit of orange oil in the nose with grapefruit, gooseberry and lime peel along with minerality and petrol. It's bone-dry and very refreshing with lemon bitters, lychee nut and white grapefruit pith.

Fraser Vineyard 2009 malbec, Snake River Valley, $25: Our 2011 Idaho Winery of the Year won a gold with this at the state competition and it's plain to see why. The nose features raspberry, cherries, chocolate and lime zest. The theme of raspberry and cherry continues with the drink. Black pepper, not tannin, is the focus of the finish.

Indian Creek Winery 2008 Pinot Noir, Snake River Valley, $15: This rare Idaho pinot noir offers aromas of violets, strawberries and Rainier cherries, followed by flavors of cranberries and red plums. It opens with bright elegant fruit that gives way to a rich midpalate and finish.

3 Horse Ranch Vineyard 2008 Reserve syrah, Snake River Valley, $19: Greg Koenig's winemaking talents and Gary Cunningham's organic vineyard are proving to be a delicious partnership. Toasted oak aromas are akin to a fresh-baked brownie and readily joined by blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry and leather. Skill shows on the palate with a smooth entry of soft fruit, vibrant acidity and a nice hit of sweet chocolate before the arrival of tannin.

Cinder Wines 2008 syrah, Snake River Valley, $27: This succulent syrah creates a mood of black cherry, plums, cinnamon and bacon. Its acidity is reminiscent of blueberries, and there's a sweet farewell that reminded us of Milk Duds.

Pend d'Oreille Winery 2007 Wood River Vineyard malbec, Snake River Valley, $28: This shows off aromas and flavors cassis, cranberry and plums, backed by minerality, allspice and acidity that override the tannin.

Vale Wine Co. 2008 cabernet sauvignon, Snake River Valley, $20: Skyline Vineyard near Caldwell and winemaker John Danielson worked together for a dark and lingering drink of cassis, cola, alder-smoked bacon, sarsaparilla and crushed leaf.

*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.

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