The first grapes were planted 153 years ago. But today, the Gem State’s wine industry is coming into its own.
More than 50 wineries dot the state from the top of the panhandle to the Nevada border. Legitimacy has come in the form of three federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (the Snake River Valley, the Lewis-Clark Valley and the Eagle Foothills.) Idaho wines are winning medals at international wine competitions and the national wine media is starting to pay attention.
Precept Wine, based in Seattle, dominates the Idaho wine landscape, owning two of the largest wineries (Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth) and the state’s biggest vineyard (Skyline), which feeds grapes to much of the industry. There are a few more vineyard plantings and new producers coming onto the scene, yet the state still seeks a signature grape and a greater supply of grapes.
The main growing region, however, has a lot going for it: high-elevation vineyards, quality soils, reasonably wide open spaces, several talented winemakers and access to customers in a dynamic metro area — Boise.
Here are a few examples of Idaho wine we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Cinder Wines 2016 Off-Dry Riesling, Snake River Valley $18: Melanie Krause trained at Chateau Ste. Michelle but only recently joined the Riesling revolution. Here, the Washington State University grad chases a citrusy style not as sweet as it is billed. Delicate notes of jasmine, white peach and Bosc pear create finesse and a tanginess that makes for a long finish. This year, it won a double gold medal and best of class at the Cascadia International Wine Competition, best of show at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition and gold at the Great Northwest Invitational. It simply is one of the West Coast’s top wines of 2017.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Coco’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Lewis-Clark Valley, $42: Coco Umiker, a recent recipient of the WSU Distinguished Alumni Award, focused on the Lewis-Clark Valley for her reserve-tier Cab. Its distinctive theme of dusty black cherry, black currant and cola comes with delicious intensity that’s approachable and age-worthy. The beautiful balance and subtle finish allows for undertones of mint, basil and lavender.
Koenig Vineyards 2014 Estate Vineyard Reserve, Snake River Valley $30: Greg Koenig crafts award-winning wines for several Idaho brands, and he carves out time to farm his slowly expanding vineyard in the Sunnyslope Wine District. This blend of muscular Bordeaux varieties leads with Petit Verdot, yet it comes with a pleasing tannin structure. It’s redolent of black fruit — plums, black cherry and black currant — with a kitchen cabinet of baking spices.
Bitner Vineyards 2014 Erletxe Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $35: International biologist Ron Bitner became inspired by Syrah when his research on bees took him to Australia. Now, his passion is the red Spanish variety Tempranillo. Longtime friend Greg Koenig and Skyline Vineyard come together on this tier called Erletxe, a Spanish term for beehouse. Piquant tones of herbs and tobacco are joined by cordial cherry and red currant, setting the table for brawny tannins and pomegranate-cranberry acidity.
Indian Creek Winery 2014 Star Garnet Red Blend, Snake River Valley, $15: Star garnet is the official stone of the Gem State, and this red blend built upon the shoulders of Merlot glimmers with aromas and flavors of black currant and boysenberry. It’s backed by earthy and cigar tones, and capped with cola notes. Each vintage, Mike McClure’s red ranks among of the Pacific Northwest’s best bargains.
Huston Vineyards 2014 Private Reserve Petite Sirah, Snake River Valley $55: The Alger family in the tiny rural community of Huston works with urban winemaker Melanie Krause on their red program, and they’ve showcased Petite Sirah — a brawny Rhône grape — in this bottling from nearby Williamson Vineyard. Dense purple notes bring along notes of dark chocolate with lavender and sea salt. Nicely managed cherry skin tannins make for a big, ripe and well-made wine that received a gold medal at the 2017 Idaho Wine Competition.
Hat Ranch Winery 2016 Estate Dry Rosé, Snake River Valley, $16: The first harvest of Cabernet Franc off the Hat Ranch estate in Sunnyslope Wine District came late — Nov. 4 — but it led to a beautiful dry rosé by retired Air Force pilot Tim Harless. Delicate notes of pink strawberry and Rainier cherry allow for minerality and anise to emerge, all carried along by crisp lemony acidity.
Ste. Chapelle Winery 2016 Panoramic Idaho Block 16 Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $20: Boise native Meredith Smith took over as Ste. Chapelle’s head winemaker a few weeks prior to the start of the 2016 harvest. This Chardonnay from a prized block at Skyline shows light oak and toast with nuttiness alongside apple and lemon/lime acidity. These Panoramic Series bottlings are available at the Sunnyslope tasting room and throughout Idaho.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com