I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Idaho Wine Month than to bring attention to one of its newest, most successful, yet still-under-the-radar boutique wineries: Hat Ranch.
Operated by Tim and Helen Harless on Plum Road out along the Sunnyslope Wine Trail in Canyon County, these two have enjoyed a great year and in the process brought additional wine-industry acclaim to Idaho.
Their 2014 Estate Dry Moscato won best of show last fall in the Idaho Wine Competition –– which means it was the best of 160 wines judged. The couple won a number of medals in the most recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for its Hat Ranch and Vale labels –– the latter acquired in 2013 after the Harless team started up in Idaho back in 2010.
The couple distinguishes the two labels this way: Vale for the more classic varietals and wine styles with a mix of whites and reds; and Hat Ranch for lesser-known varietals, artisan blends and small lots.
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One of those “lesser knowns” was that award-winning Dry Moscato, a varietal most often associated with sweet/cloying/fortified or sparkling wines that one might experiment with early in their wine-drinking journey before developing a taste for more dry styles.
In fact, when I heard a wine derived from the Muscat grape had won best of show in Idaho I had a double take. It is no secret I prefer dry wines, but because I have tasted the splendid results of the dry-styles Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Gruner-Veltliners and other typically sweet whites, I was ready to suspend belief and sip some.
Though I tasted the 2015 vintage (the 2014 was the prize-winner), I can tell you this Dry Moscato is the cure for boring white wine. Minus the sugar of those sweet styles, it is like tasting through a citrus bar from apple to grapefruit to Meyer lemon with a honey-kissed spoon. It is so different, you will feel like you discovered it.
But if you must have your Chardonnay, winemaker Harless can serve it up with oak and butter under the Vale label or, my favorite, a 2013 Hat Ranch unoaked version that skips the malolactic fermentation process and therefore doesn’t mask the tart and fruity profile of feisty Chardonnay grapes that survive the heat in these parts. But be careful –– once you start to experiment with stainless-steel whites you may never go back to the oak-butter bandwagon.
The red I remember and took home was a 2012 Vale Merlot so tasty it would turn the wine movie “Sideways” (which dissed the varietal) on its side. This wine is made with a smidgen of Petite Verdot that gives its already smooth, elegant flavor a spicy finish.
It is rare that I can sip through a winery tasting and find so many great offerings and innovative styles from whites to reds in the $17 to $30 category. This is especially surprising when you consider the Harless team has only been at it in Idaho for six years while maintaining other careers (he a pilot for American Airlines and she an area dentist). Though Tim was a home winemaker who took some formal training when the couple was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Texas, they have made amazing strides in both the art and science of this business.
The grapes Tim pursues are calculated bets considering the climate, and the expansion of the business has been steady. The winery and tasting room –– which offer lovely views of the Snake River Valley and mountains –– have made steady strides in production (now at about 1,500 cases produced) and facility upgrades. More, like a new outdoor deck, are on the drawing board.
If you can’t make it out to the winery in the near future, and you will attend Savor Idaho, you’ll get a chance to taste the Hat Ranch and Vale wines there –– including that 2015 Dry Moscato.
For more information about Idaho Wine Month events, check out the Idaho Wine Commission website at idahowines.org.