Michael Austin, who writes a wine column for the Chicago Tribune, recently checked out Idaho’s wine scene. Here’s what he found:
Any Idaho agricultural story, even a story about wine, has to begin with potatoes. The state turns out 13 billion pounds of spuds a year. Go ahead, read it again if you have to: 13 billion pounds.
Idaho aggies are big on barley, plums, onions, beets and mint, too. They don’t call it the Gem State for nothing. The place has good growing soil, and for close to 50 years, a small portion of it has been dedicated to growing commercial wine grapes. Idaho’s climate is well suited for such a crop, and most of it grows at relatively high elevation, somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. The state enjoys long, sunny days (for ripening) and cool, high-altitude nights (for retaining acidity). Daily temperature shifts of 40 degrees are not out of the question in some vineyard locations.
Idaho vineyards date to the 1860s, even before grapes were planted next door in Washington and Oregon. Prohibition put an end to the first phase of the Idaho wine industry, and it was not until the 1970s that it picked up where it left off. So Idaho has a young and small wine industry, with many miles to go before it achieves the success of its neighbors. But the state known for potatoes is also turning out some good wines these days.
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There are three overall wine regions in Idaho (North, Southwest and Southeast), and in 2007, the state’s first official appellation, the Snake River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), was established. It stretches across 8,000 square miles, even crossing the state line and creeping into Oregon, and is home to 1,125 acres of Idaho vineyards. Idaho’s second appellation, Eagle Foothills AVA, was established in 2015, and the third, Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, came into being in May 2016. About three-fourths of that appellation is in Idaho, and the rest lies across the border in eastern Washington.
Establishing a wine industry takes time. By 2002, there were still only 11 wineries in Idaho. One of them was Ste. Chapelle, which opened in the mid-’70s and remains the state’s largest winery. By 2009 there were more than 40 wineries, and less than a decade later, there are more than 50. It’s a small group of like-minded folk and a small collection of grapevines. Outside of the Snake River Valley, there are only about an additional 150 acres of vines planted. It calls to mind a sort of ground-floor opportunity, doesn’t it? Go west, young winemakers! (Proposals and business plans now being accepted, I’m sure.)
As in many developing and improving wine regions, experimentation is common. So far the leading white grape varieties, in terms of vines planted, are riesling, chardonnay and pinot gris. The most popular reds are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, malbec and tempranillo. But Idaho winemakers and grape growers have a pioneering spirit, and they tend to follow their bliss.
The blessing and curse of more established wine regions known for specific styles is that winemakers there are expected (or required by law, in many Old World cases) to produce that kind of wine because it makes sense to do so (or it’s the law). It can be confining. On the other hand, the blessing and curse of an area not well known for wine is you can do whatever you want, and that lack of cohesion can cut both ways. But really, as long as the wines are good, nobody should care, right?
Michael Austin’s recommendations
2015 Indian Creek White Riesling. Apple, apricots and pear led to zingy acidity, citrus and a touch of eucalyptus on the finish. $12
2015 Fujishin Family Cellars Reserve Viognier. Minerality and peach were accompanied by a buttery-toasty oak presence and a soft mouthfeel. $17
2015 Hat Ranch Winery Dry Moscato. Light, refreshing, floral and nutty, with a blast of clean citrus toward the finish. $18
2014 Cinder Small Lot Series Sauvignon Blanc. Ripe pear and fennel led to lemon and zippy acidity in this refreshing wine. $25
2012 Williamson Vineyards Sangiovese. Dark cherry, incense, leather and other dark fruits characterized this fun and lively wine. $18
2012 Crossings Winery Cabernet Franc. An expressive wine full of cherry, dill, incense, black licorice and a touch of salinity. $18.50
2012 Ste. Chapelle Winery Panoramic Idaho Petit Verdot. Rich and decadent, full of blueberry and other dark fruits, plus orange zest and smoke. $25
2014 Clearwater Canyon Estate Syrah. A luscious wine offering dark fruits, roasted meat, incense, smoke and a spicy finish. $28
2014 Huston Vineyards Malbec. Plum, blackberry, earth, coffee, leather and spice were all present in this formidable, full-bodied wine. $29
2013 Bitner Vineyards Erletxe Tempranillo. Earthy, floral and herbal, this one was full of rich, red fruits, toast and a touch of leather. $35
2013 Sawtooth Winery Trout Trilogy Carmenere. Plum, blackberry, vanilla, black pepper, leather and spice came together in this silky wine. $40
2014 Koenig Vineyards Botrytis Single Berry Select Late Harvest Riesling. Ripe apple, pear and peach joined by clean, balancing acidity. $30 for a 350-milliliter bottle