Winemakers play with Red Mountain grapes like puzzle pieces.
That’s because the ice age floods gave Red Mountain a gift, leaving behind diverse soil and geology across the 4,040 acres of the state’s smallest wine grape growing area.
Drive a mile and a half down the road from any vineyard, and the complexity of the grapes changes.
Winemakers are just beginning to develop and explore the possibilities of mixing grapes from different parts of the mountain, said Dick Boushey, a Grandview grower who manages some Red Mountain vineyards.
It’s a unique little microclimate, and one of the hottest growing areas in the state.
The wind helps dry the vines and makes them struggle a bit more, said Tim Hightower of Hightower Cellars. It moderates the canopy and grape size, ultimately resulting in a higher skin-to-juice ratio, which is where the flavor and color comes from.
Cold air tends to run off the slopes, protecting vines there from freezing in most cases.
In some places, there are six inches of soil on basalt, others have six feet of soil or pure rock, said Heather Unwin, Red Mountain American Viticultural Area Alliance executive director. Vines of course won’t grow in solid stone, so those areas are not plantable.
Red Mountain grapes work well for a certain style, allowing winemakers to create wine that will age with more structure, Boushey said. It has a big mouth feel because the heat results in thicker grape skins. Those who want more fruity grapes with lower tannins might go somewhere else.
“The tannin structure has this intensity, it's got a lot of richness, and it has good balance as far as the acidity and tannins,” said Darel Allwine, Col Solare winemaker. Tannins give red wine a dry feeling and bitter taste.
As the grapes develop, Allwine is continually in Col Solare’s vineyards. To determine when to harvest, he will pick fruit from different sides of the canopy and cluster and pop it in his mouth and chew to check the taste. He also wants to make sure the seeds are brown, because that means they are ripe, he said. The seeds are where the tannins come from.
Allwine made five different blend styles as part of the 2013 process, he said. The final blend is decided on by himself and representatives from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscany’s Antinori family, who have partnered for Col Solare.
Collaboration is something Hightower Cellars has in common with Col Solare, even though Col Solare produces about 7,000 cases each year while the Hightowers will make 2,500 to 2,700 cases this year.
Tim and Kelly Hightower plan to continue to sell some of their own grapes and buy grapes from other Red Mountain vineyards to create their wines.
They will make nine to 15 different combinations before they find the right blend for their Red Mountain Reserve, which is normally based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Tim Hightower said. They’ll rank the combinations and eventually settle on a winner.
“I think we make a better wine because we make it together,” Kelly Hightower said.
Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org