Despite the Gem State's rich agricultural history, Idaho wines rarely get the respect they deserve. Perhaps this is because of the region's famous potatoes. Just as likely, it's because the industry is still a toddler compared with its West Coast peers.
In fact, Idaho wine has roots that go back to the mid-1800s, but Prohibition extinguished the nascent industry, and wine grapes weren't planted again until the 1970s, when Ste. Chapelle in Caldwell opened its doors.
Today, Ste. Chapelle is the state's largest and most successful producer, and the Idaho wine industry is starting to gain traction, thanks to more than 40 producers and a high-energy and professional staff running the state wine commission.
In early October, Wine Press Northwest conducted the annual Idaho Wine Competition, which gives us an overview of where the state stands. This year, our panel of eight professional judges awarded 12 gold medals out of 170 entries, with the best-in-show trophy going to Sawtooth Winery's Gewürztraminer. Woodriver Cellars' cabernet franc won best red, while Ste. Chapelle's late harvest riesling won best dessert wine and Williamson Vineyards' rosé of sangiovese was the top pink wine.
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Here are a few of our favorite wines from this year's competition:
Sawtooth Winery 2010 Estate Gewürztraminer, Snake River Valley, $9: Aromas include yellow grapefruit, apples, lychee, tangerine, honeydew melon and spicy ginger. Grapefruit flavors follow, joined by more lychee, mango and rose petal. There's a bit of sweetness to the body, but the acidic bite makes it finish crisply.
Williamson Vineyards 2010 Blossom rosé of sangiovese, Snake River Valley, $12: This beautiful pink wine opens with gorgeous aromas of strawberry, raspberry and citrus, and there's a delicious follow-through between the lips, backed by Rainier cherries. Racy acidity in the finish keeps the 2 percent residual sugar in check.
Woodriver Cellars 2008 cabernet franc, Snake River Valley, $25: This delicious red offers aromas of cranberries, raspberries, orange zest, mint, cinnamon and just a sliver of bell pepper. On the palate, it picks up black cherry, cassis and blueberry flavors, fine-grained tannins and a pleasing dose of acidity.
Cinder Wines 2009 syrah, Snake River Valley, $27: This opens with aromas of fresh-picked Marionberry and boysenberry, which circulate with hints of black pepper and toasted marshmallow covered in chocolate. On the palate, there is even more fruit as the flavors focus on blackberry from beginning to end. The package is held up by a remarkable integration of acidity and tannin. This wine serves as a tasty example of why many are bullish on syrah grown in Idaho.
Fujishin Family Cellars 2008 mourvédre, Snake River Valley, $20: Here's another example of why there's such hope for Rhône varieties in the Snake River Valley. Tones of strawberry taffy and Bing cherries make for a delicious, bright and spicy drink that's capped with a pinch of pepper.
Fraser Vineyards 2009 petite sirah, Snake River Valley, $24: This red Rhône variety is a dense and rich wine that's packed full of dark plums, blackberry, fresh fig and pomegranate, spiced up by pink peppercorns. The tannin structure brings the power of a cruiserweight rather than that of a heavyweight.
Koenig Vineyards 2009 riesling ice wine, Snake River Valley, $20: It was nearly January before the grapes for this wine were harvested, and it's reminiscent of honey-baked apples, toasted walnuts and peach cobbler. A finish of lemon zesty acidity makes it crisp, not cloying, considering the residual sugar (23 percent).
Ste. Chapelle 2008 Late Harvest riesling, Snake River Valley, $20: Those who want to drink their dessert but don't want the syrupy structure of many ice wines should seek out this. It is bursting with notes of golden raisins, orange marmalade on toast, honey, lavender and delicate clove spice. Ample acidity balances the lofty residual sugar of 20 percent.
*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.