The Snake River Valley
Idaho is probably not the first state that comes to mind when the topic of U.S. wine comes up. But if you’ve been paying attention to the wine press lately, Idaho, especially the Snake River Valley AVA near Boise, is beginning to get some attention. And for good reason. They make good wine here. After all, the Snake River AVA crosses the Washington border and Eastern Washington is, of course, a prime wine grape region. In fact, you can think of Idaho as Washington’s adolescent off-spring, still dependent on mom and dad but quickly gaining autonomy.
Idaho, like Eastern Washington, has a continental climate (6-8 inches of rain per year) with hot, dry summers producing concentrated fruit flavor and cold winters allowing vines to go dormant and killing off diseases that threaten the vines. Both occupy a northern latitude so they have summertime daylight well into the late evening, and both have strong diurnal temperature shifts with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 50’s for much of the summer helping to keep acidity in the grapes. The differences are primarily in the general soil types and elevation. Idaho has soils formed from volcanic ash; Washington does too but with a higher percentage of glacial deposits. Perhaps more importantly, Idaho vineyards are generally much higher in elevation, reaching as high as 3000 feet above sea level which explains one of their biggest challenges—getting their vineyards to survive winter kill and early autumn frost.
Case in point—2017. While Washington vineyards suffered some crop losses from this unusually cold winter and as of this writing yields are uncertain, Idaho vineyards were devastated. The Boise area typically gets only 4-6 inches of snow per year. The winter of 2017 dumped 37 inches of snow on the region with unusual cold snaps that extended for days on end. Extended cold weather destroys the fruit buds that had formed the previous summer sharply reducing yields. Only the vineyards with good air flow draining off the cold air will get much yield this year. Happily, since most of the vines are own-rooted and have no grafts exposed to the elements, the vine trunks and root systems survived and vineyards should be back to normal in a year or two. There will be plenty of grapes to make wine in 2017 but they will have to rely on fruit from Washington State where many Idaho producers have long term relationships and contracts.
There are now over 50 wineries in Idaho (up from 11 in 2002) and most are located in the southwestern portion of the Snake River Valley with a few scattered though the eastern part of the valley. The Snake River AVA became official in 2007 and now includes, as a sub-region, the Eagle Foothills AVA just north of Boise. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA was added in 2016 and occupies the border of Idaho and Washington in the northern part of the state where the Snake River intersects with the Clearwater River. All of this activity is testimony to the enormous potential of this region. Although Idaho has about 1200 acres under vine, a recent survey concluded that theoretically there is the potential for about 50,000 acres.
The main difficulty is securing enough local fruit for the burgeoning wine business in Boise. As noted, most of the wineries here have a tradition of getting some fruit from Washington. Many wineries would like to make wine exclusively from Idaho grapes and they do so when possible. But the need for more vineyards was a constant plea we heard in talking to people in the Idaho wine business. As Moya Dolsby, Executive Director of the Idaho Wine Commission told us, “If we’re going to reach our potential, we need to get more vines in the ground.” Furthermore, when I asked one prominent winemaker if the growers here were grape growers or wine grape growers, he smiled and said “no comment”. The demand for quality grapes is outstripping supply even when the weather cooperates.
In Idaho, winemaking is a bit more advanced than the viticulture in part because lots of winemaking talent from Washington and California migrated here seeking the less crowded, less expensive, slower paced, yet nevertheless urban lifestyle offered by Boise. That probably also explains one of the really unique facts about Idaho—the high percentage of female winemakers. I don’t have comprehensive stats but, according to one count , 22% of the winemakers in Idaho are women including several of the top ten Snake River wineries. Melanie Krause, winemaker and co-owner of Cinder Winery, told me that she returned to her home in Idaho after working for Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle because it was a better atmosphere for raising her family. Many women in Idaho’s wine industry have made a similar decision.
Vineyard workers at Koenig Vineyards
Warm to hot, daytime, summer temperatures allow most varietals to ripen in Idaho despite the short growing season. Bud break is typically around the 2nd week of April and harvest is usually finished by Halloween. Riesling, Chardonnay and the Bordeaux grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, have been the primary varietals but there is a lot of excitement about Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, and even Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah, although plantings of the latter two are miniscule at the moment. My own personal opinion: It’s a bit hot for Riesling here. The Riesling we tasted was acceptable but not special, although Cinder’s off-dry Riesling was an exception. The Chardonnay was mostly clunky with too much oak. Viognier, although a difficult grape, is more promising and we tasted several brilliant examples that had the aromatic intensity and generous mouthfeel expected of that grape. As for reds, the playing field is wide open although Cabernet Sauvignon gets sufficiently ripe only in the best vintages. I asked Earl Sullivan of Telaya if there was a distinctive flavor profile that distinguished Idaho from other regions and, he replied, “not yet”. “We’re still trying to figure out what Idaho wine is”. Melanie Krause of Cinder thinks Idaho reds tend to be more elegant with softer tannins than comparable wines from Washington. I agree with her observation but whether that has to do with the soil, the climate, or stylistic choices among winemakers, it’s hard to say. There are too many microclimates and soil types and only a few examples of some varietals being grown here to make generalizations at this point. Diversity may be their strength here.
With Boise’s rapid growth, a population increasingly interested in wine, available land, and its position as a gateway to markets in the the Mountain West, there is great potential here and I suspect we will continue to hear good things about Idaho wines.
The largest winery in the state has long been Ste. Chapelle (est. 1975) which produces 125,000 cases per year. But they use mostly Washington fruit and have not as yet made a commitment to developing Idaho as a region. Moya Dolsby said most wineries produce between 3000 and 7000 cases per year so this is a region where artisan production reigns, and it is those small producers that we focused on in our tasting.
Here are the wineries we found to be most impressive:
All the wines from this urban winery near Boise hit my sweet spot. Winemaker Melanie Krause achieves an elegant, graceful style picking grapes at around 21-22 degrees brix to achieve great balance and freshness. Each wine in their lineup has finesse, pure fruit expression, and complexity. The Chardonnays (2015 and 2016) were head and shoulders above others in Snake River, largely because of Melanie’s deft hand with new oak. A gorgeous Viognier (their flagship wine), an intriguing blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc called Laissez Faire, and an off dry Riesling that was the best of this varietal we tasted rounds out the whites. The Laissez Faire red (Sangiovese and Mourvedre) makes a fine table wine, but the 2014 Tempranillo, 2014 Bordeaux-style blend, and the 2015 Syrah were outstanding. See my review of their “foot stomp” Syrah here. I don’t normally assign points when making winery visits but all these wines are in the 90-92 point range and can compete with comparable wines from Washington or California.
Winemaker Earl Sullivan is a stickler for cleanliness, perhaps a holdover value from his years in the pharmaceutical industry. As far as I know, his is the only winery that seals their production room and blasts it with ozone every night to kill any critters that might be lurking. Telaya uses about 60% Idaho fruit, filling in with grapes from Washington State when the Idaho fruit doesn’t meet Earl’s exacting standards. The results of his attention to detail are wines of great clarity and precision all with the silky textures that define his style of winemaking. A tasty Viognier, and an especially vibrant, textured Grenache Blanc were the standout whites. A Malbec featuring bright, bing cherry aromas and a luscious mouthfeel, a blend of Syrah, Malbec and Merlot called Turus (2014) which showed intriguing smoke and meat aromas, and the outstanding 2015 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (see my review here) completed the tasting menu. Telaya is one of several urban wineries along the Boise River just north of the city. They serve food and host frequent musical performances as well giving the burgeoning Boise population a full service venue in which to indulge their wine cravings.
Split Rail Winery
Every wine region needs a maverick to keep complacency from settling in. In the Snake River Valley that person is Jed Glavin. From his use of egg-shaped, concrete fermentation vessels to his attempt to market wine in cans for the hikers and campers who need their wilderness wine fix, Jed is one of those creative types who seem to have a new idea every minute: he’s interested in natural wines, is experimenting with a pet-net (a sparkling wine made by allowing the CO2 to develop from the first fermentation in the bottle), and wants to make a sour Chardonnay by inoculating the wine with Brett (a form of yeast that induces funky flavors often considered a flaw). It’s a good thing he makes good wine. The 2016 Exploding Mirror (Roussane and Viognier) was refreshing and full of flavor as was the 2016 Dry Rosé made from Cinsault. The blend of Mourvedre and Syrah was spicy with white pepper and a Rhone-like blood and iron flavor note. But my favorite was the 2014 Petite Verdot, a grape getting some attention here, despite being in short supply, because it seems to grow well in Idaho. Split Rail’s is floral, soft on the palate with spicy tannins providing structure. (See my full review here) Split Rail is another of the urban wineries just north of Boise.
The following wineries are in the Sunnyslope area west of Boise near the Snake River:
Greg and Mary Alder grew up on an Idaho farm, but a visit to Napa and the opportunity to acquire land and vines at a good price convinced them to grow grapes. Their Huston label is 100% Idaho grapes; their Chicken Dinner label is table wine sourced from all over the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it was the vintage; 2014 was an incredibly good year. But these reds are lovely. A rich, earthy, Malbec, and a juicy, lush Cabernet Sauvignon with refined tannins impressed but the star is their Private Reserve Petite Sirah (2014). Rich fig, chocolate, and berry notes supported by fine-grained yet structured tannins. There is only about 1 acre of Petite Sirah in the whole state. More of this please.
Using all local grapes, this winery does an excellent job with Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a difficult grape to get ripe in Idaho at least in some vintages. Koenig deals with this problem by making a more European style Cab—earthy, structured with high acidity. Their Hell’s Canyon 2014 Cab needs more time to settle down but it’s a serious wine. The Fraser Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is softer and more accessible. They also feature a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah blend called Cuvee Alden 2012 that was drinking well, showing berry and chocolate notes with a lush mouthfeel; and an accessible 2014 Syrah with ripe berry notes and sleek minerality. Among the white wines, the 2014 dry Riesling was impressive–delicate but textured with lovely lime and apricot on the nose. Their 2016 Viognier was fresh and crisp showing floral and tropical notes.
Fujishin Family Cellars
Sourcing almost all their grapes from within a 20 mile radius of their winery, Fujishin’s flagship Viognier from 2016 was definitely impressive. Pear and floral notes introduced the lovely, textured mouthfeel and long mineral-driven finish. (See my full review here). The Cabernet/Syrah blend was rich with berry and earth notes and offered a smooth midpalate with a long, somewhat rustic finish. But the red wine that attracted my attention was their 2013 Petite Sirah—lots of berry, smoke, cocoa and tannins under control from 2 yrs. in American oak