One of Washington's oldest wine-growing regions also is one of its least understood -- and least traveled by wine tourists. Yet it's also one of the most important for winemakers.
The Horse Heaven Hills is a vast region of 570,000 acres that stretches along the Columbia River where it borders Oregon. Today, about 8,400 acres of wine grapes are grown in the Horse Heaven Hills, and it is one of the state's fastest-growing vineyard regions because its fruit is so highly prized.
Such vineyards as Champoux, Alder Ridge, Destiny Ridge, Andrews and Zephyr Ridge supply grapes to dozens of top wineries. And Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has invested heavily in the region for decades, situating two of its largest winemaking facilities -- Columbia Crest and Canoe Ridge Estate -- in the Horse Heaven Hills and planting two estate vineyards, Horse Heaven Vineyard and Canoe Ridge Estate.
What makes the Horse Heaven Hills so special? Plenty. Elevations ranging from 300 to 1,800 feet above sea level provide all kinds of interesting places to grow grapes. Wind coming up the Columbia River Gorge moderates temperatures and reduces the ability for diseases to harm the vines. And the sandy soils are perfect for vineyards.
Many winemakers love the Horse Heaven Hills for cabernet sauvignon, though other reds as well as white grape varieties also do well, making the region so important for Washington's wine industry.
Here are a few wines we've tasted recently that were made from Horse Heaven Hills fruit:
-- Fidelitas Wines 2007 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $50: Oaky aromas of cinnamon bark and cedar with cassis and pencil lead are followed by mouth-coating flavors of plum, boysenberry and enjoyable chalkiness. Cordial cherries and dried fig play out in the finish.
-- DavenLore Winery 2008 Malbec, $25: Gordon Taylor works the Prosser Farmers Market hand-selling his wine, but this production of Double Canyon Vineyard sells itself. Aromas include blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, pie cherry, cedar, chocolate-covered Graham Cracker and grilled meat fat. The structure seems bullet-proof with its concentration of boysenberry and pomegranate. Great acidity and a pinch of catnip will have you asking Taylor about his recipes for baked pasta and winter soups.
-- Parejas Cellars 2007 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Mourvedre, $18: Mark Wysling used the Spanish term for "partners" as the name for his Grandview winery, and his relationship with the Andrews family shows. Aromas include raspberry, Dr Pepper, Jolly Rancher candy, sandy loam and black pepper. That black pepper note, often found in this Rhone variety, returns in this friendly drink of raspberry, plums and dried cherries. Clingy acidity, orange peel and ground almond paste take turns in the finish.
-- Robert Karl Cellars 2007 Claret, $20: One of the most consistent and classic wines in the Northwest each year is Joe Gunselman's affordable assemblage. Cabernet sauvignon (40 percent), merlot (20 percent) cabernet franc (14 percent), petit verdot (14 percent) and malbec impart black cherries and smoky coffee, cedar and bittersweet chocolate. It's an easy drinker with those cherries and pomegranate, which gives is lots of acidity. The wealth of oak and fine-grained tannins lend it opulence.
-- Otis Kenyon Wines 2007 Carmenere, $36: If fans of traditional, food-friendly and leafy cabernet franc are bored, they should hook up with this obscure Bordeaux variety. Wines featuring "carm' are not for the faint of heart, including this one off Phinney Hill Vineyard. Whiffs of sagebrush, black cherry, salumi, Zoom cereal and Ovaltine stop you cold. The mouth-filling palate is traditional but a bit rustic with blackberry jam, lavender and chocolaty tannins.
-- OS Winery 2007 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Franc, $28: Here's an expression of cab franc that exudes richness, abundant black fruit and little of the leafiness one expects to find. There is, however, a bright acidity, a rabbit punch of tannin, some pepper and milk chocolate in the back end.
*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.