Idaho wine industry coming into its own

A vineyard worker harvests Syrah at Williamson Vineyard in the heart of Idaho wine country near Caldwell. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

The Idaho wine industry is fun to watch right now.

Gem State winemakers produced two best-of-class awards and 11 gold medals at this spring’s international Cascadia Wine Competition in Hood River, Ore.

The winemaking industry in Idaho dates back more than a century, and the modern industry goes back to 1976. Today, 51 wineries are spread up and down the state, using more than 1,300 acres of grapes.

While the modern Idaho wine industry began in 1976 with the launch of Ste. Chapelle, the industry was propelled forward in 2007, when the federal government approved the Snake River Valley as the state’s first American Viticultural Area. The industry further defined and refined itself with two more AVAs in the past two years: the Eagle Foothills and the Lewis-Clark Valley.

Talented winemakers have returned home, and there’s a growing maturity in the industry.

Here are a dozen delicious Idaho wines to get you started on your journey of discovering Idaho wine country. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.

Coiled Wines 2015 Sparkling Rizza, Snake River Valley, $28

Leslie Preston trained in Napa’s tony Stags Leap District where Cab is king, but the Idaho native continues to devote more of her time and energy to Riesling in multiple forms, including her fun bubbles project that continues to grow. She collaborates with Andrew Davis of Radiant Sparkling Wine Co., in Dundee, Ore., and they capture aromas of nectarine, pear syrup, apple pectin and cinnamon powder. Its delicate and fine-sized bubbles make for a remarkable palate experience focused on Meyer lemon and Key Lime Pie flavors. A perfect balance of fruit, sugar and acidity led to its award as best sparkling wine at the 2017 Cascadia Wine Competition.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 450 cases

Alcohol: 12.5%

Winery website

Indian Creek Winery 2014 Touriga Naçional, Snake River Valley, $29

While this traditional Port-style variety finds its way into Mike McClure’s fortified program, these three barrels off Arena Valley Vineyard from the 2014 vintage proved too stellar to blend away, prompting the University of Idaho grad to produce this standalone bottling. Viewed as Portugal’s top red and its answer to Cab, McClure presents it in delicious fashion. There are enticing hints of blueberry, leather, tobacco leaf and chalkboard dust, backed by tannins that offer great tension and graphite. Enjoy now with well-marbled meats, but its delicious Marionberry acidity and managed alcohol also will allow it to age and soften.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 75 cases

Alcohol: 13.9%

Winery website

Telaya Wine Co. 2014 Daniel Vineyard Merlot, Snake River Valley, $45

Idaho winemakers Earl and Carrie Sullivan turn much of their attention to famed producers in Washington state’s Columbia Valley such as Boushey and Quintessence for their Bordeaux varieties. And yet, they’ve established a relationship with Dave Daniel’s vineyard south of Lake Lowell in the Snake River Valley. This signaled a bounce-back vintage for Daniel, whose site on the outskirts of Nampa fell victim to the January 2013 killing freeze, so Telaya created this vineyard-designate release for club members. It’s a robust and hedonistic Merlot that’s loaded with dark red cherry and allspice notes, backed by toast, tar and a long scrape of vanilla bean in the finish.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 55 cases

Alcohol: 13.7%

Winery website

Cinder Wines 2014 Syrah, Snake River Valley, $29

The promise of Syrah grown in the high-elevation of Idaho’s Snake River Valley helped lure Melanie Krause back home to launch her own winery, and her continued excellence with this Rhône variety provides proof. She works with three of the region’s top sites for Syrah — Sawtooth, Skyline and Williamson — and co-ferments with Viognier (5%). There’s also 10 percent of the lot that’s built with foot-pressed on the stems. Next, it spent 16 months in 30% new barrels to create smoky and toasty notes with blueberry and vanilla, a creamy blend of flavors that makes for a great texture and pleasing approach. Suggested pairings include espresso-rubbed kobe beef or pork chops with fruit chutney or hoisin.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 670 cases

Alcohol: 14.1%

Winery website

Fujishin Family Cellars 2014 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $25

This early-ripening red grape is well suited for Idaho’s high-elevation Snake River Valley, and it’s a natural draw for the Treasure Valley’s large Basque community. “Hot Brand” recipient Martin Fujishin bottles his second vintage with Temp, and it carries a theme of sweet blackberry and plums with toast. The pleasing tannin structure, baking spices and fruit-forward style make this ideal with cured meats, dishes featuring tomato sauce and Mexican fare.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 177 cases

Alcohol: 14.2%

Winery website

Fujishin Family Cellars 2014 Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $13

Best Buy! Martin Fujishin works with Chardonnay from nearby vineyards Polo Cove and Bitner, and he presents this in what he refers to as a “Central Coast” style inspired by trips to California. As a result, this bargain-priced Chardonnay offers aromas and flavors of toasty oak, starfruit and dried apricot, backed by butter and lemon pepper.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 168 cases

Alcohol: 13.2%

Winery website

Crossings Winery 2012 Zabala Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Snake River Valley, $19

Idaho winemaker Neil Glancey continues to show his skill with this less-appreciated Bordeaux variety. He pulls from nearby Zabala Vineyard in the Hagerman Valley for this stunning Cab Franc that offers a theme of sweet oak with plenty of red fruit flavor akin to cassis, raspberry and cranberry. There are pinches of leafiness and white pepper joined by great acidity, prized components among Francophiles. Its trace of tannins and Craisins in the finish make this quite a quaffer, earning it a gold medal at the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition. He won best of show in 2011 with a Cabernet Franc during his days at now-closed Woodriver Cellars. At Tannins, the on-premise restaurant at Crossings, they suggest pairing Glancey’s Cab Franc with Sweet Chili-Lime Shrimp with coconut jasmine rice.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 3,000 cases

Alcohol: 12.5%

Winery website

Terra Nativa Vineyards 2012 Reserve Merlot, Idaho, $40

Treasure Valley developer Richard Pavelek dotes on his vines of red Bordeaux varieties grown in the foothills east of Boise, making his perhaps the state’s highest elevation  site for ongoing viticulture — 3,100 feet. His focus on estate fruit explains why Terra Nativa is one of Idaho’s tiniest wineries with an annual production of 600 cases. Here, Pavelek has crafted a superb Merlot with classic aromas of coffee, red plum, a hint of oak and black fruit. On the palate, it’s smooth with notes of black cherry and a hint of vanilla for a beautifully balanced mouth feel. This earned a gold medal and best of class at the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 56 cases

Alcohol: 13.5%

Winery website

Bitner Vineyards 2012 Reserve Petit Verdot Merlot, Snake River Valley, $32

Longtime Idaho grower Ron Bitner works with Sunnyslope winemaker Greg Koenig to craft this delicious Bordeaux-style red blend that leads with Petit Verdot and backed by Merlot (40%) from the vines planted along Plum Road. Bold, dark, dense aromas of molasses, plum and black cherry are backed by flavors of red fruit, tobacco and a hint of oak. Ample acidity and well-managed tannins complete the structure that was deemed worthy of a gold medal at the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 173 cases

Alcohol: 14%

Winery website

Colter’s Creek Winery 2014 Koos•Koos•Kia Red, Lewis-Clark Valley, $24

Work in their maturing Lewis-Clark Valley vineyard by Mike Pearson and in the cellar by his wife, Melissa Sanborn, allowed them to increase production by 50 percent of their flagship wine that serves as a tribute to Lewis & Clark’s reference of the Clearwater River. This classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot carries aromas of sweet cherries, Hostess Berry pie, sweet cherries and ginger spice, backed by a delicious structure of black currant and blueberry. Well-managed tannins allow for a finish of cherry juice and warm toffee. Their wines are available in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and Montana.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 600 cases

Alcohol: 14%

Winery website

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2015 Umiker Vineyard Lochsa White Wine, Lewis-Clark Valley, $15

Karl and Coco Umiker’s vineyard in the Lewiston Orchards is in its second decade of life, and its growth has allowed them to present this proprietary blend as an entire estate presentation. Legally, they could label this is Chardonnay (86%), and there is a slight influence of 30 percent new barrel involved, but they round this out with Viognier (9%) and Riesling. The Chardonnay takes center stage, starting in the nose with bright tropical fruit notes, slices of dried apricot and Granny Smith apple and a squirt of lemon oil. Inside, it shines with white peach, starfruit and lemon pith in the finish. The 50 percent stainless steel fermentation, ripeness of fruit and enjoyable mouth feel make this a pleasant quaffer. Try this — pronounced as “lock saw” — on someone who says they don’t like Chardonnay, and serve with sushi.

Rating: Excellent

Production: 236 cases

Alcohol: 13.6%

Winery website

Split Rail Winery NV The Horned Beast Cernunnos Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre, Snake River Valley, $29

Boise-area winemaker Jed Glavin used Sawtooth and Williamson vineyards to produce the best red wine of the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition, a Rhône-style blend from the 2014 vintage leading with Syrah and named for Cernunnos, the horned god from Celtic mythology. Luscious aromas offer hints of gaminess, purple fruit and red tones. On the palate, there’s great depth and length, along with peppery notes. Tucked in corners of this wine are complex notes of black pepper, all backed by lingering acidity and tannin. His labels and names are eclectic – this features a deer head with grape vines for horns and wine bottles for its head — but these are serious wines. And his GSM understandably has grown into Glavin’s flagship wine.

Rating: Outstanding!

Production: 240 cases

Alcohol: 14.9%

Winery website

Feathered Winds Wine 2012 Malbec, Snake River Valley, $18

One of Southern Idaho’s new wineries pays tribute to the legacy of Woodriver Vineyards with this cool-climate Malbec grown in what is now the Eagle Foothills American Viticultural Area. The 30-acre vineyard near the town of Eagle is gone, but this bright red has a long life ahead. Aromas of boysenberry and juniper berry come with lime peel and a pinch of tarragon. Well-managed tannins keep the focus on flavors of boysenberry compote and blueberry, making for a lingering food-friendly finish joined by a pinch of sweet herbs. Enjoy this at the Thousand Springs Winery tasting room, a wood cabin that’s part of the bed-and-breakfast complex a stone’s throw from the Snake River in the Hagerman Valley.

Rating: Recommended

Production: 100 cases

Alcohol: 13.9%

Winery website

 

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