Friday, October 12, 2018

Washington State’s Red Mountain Region A Towering Giant In Red Wine Artistry

Ciel de Cheval VineyardAt just over 4,000 acres, the Red Mountain AVA is the smallest and warmest wine-grape growing region in Washington. Don’t be fooled by its tiny size – it is producing powerful, world-class wines.

Awakening Giant

JJ Williams likes to call Red Mountain an “overnight 40-year success.” Director of operations for Kiona Vineyards, JJ’s grandfather John and friend Jim Holmes planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975.

At the time, Washington State was considered mainly suitable for cool climate white grapes. And so it was that the first vineyard on Red Mountain, on a southwest facing slope in Southern Central Washington was planted to Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Much has changed since the ‘70s, as we discovered during a recent Wine Bloggers Conference pre-conference excursion hosted by the Red Mountain AVA Alliance. The first Red Mountain wine was produced in 1978, when grapes were sold to Preston, whose winemaker was Rob Griffin, now of Barnard Griffin Winery. The depth of color and intensity of the fruit was a revelation. Red Mountain, a sub-region of the Yakima Valley AVA, is now known for premium reds and is almost “planted out.”

Red Mountain panoramaToday Kiona has three Red Mountain estate vineyards, including the acclaimed Heart of the Hill Vineyard. Col Solare, a joint project between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Italian icon Antinori, put Red Mountain on the map with powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Hedges Family Estate, established with a land purchase in 1989, accelerated the growth and reputation of the region.

The Five Pillars Of Red Mountain

So what makes Red Mountain unique from any other wine-producing region? Why do superlative red wines spring forth like gushing fountains? It comes down to what Red Mountain wine people call the five pillars.

  1. The Slope – The gentle southwest-oriented slope of Red Mountain orients the vineyards to prolonged sunlight and warmth. This allows for the development of ripe tannins – a calling card for Red Mountain grapes.
  2. Low Rainfall – Red Mountain gets about 5.8 inches of rain a year, less than Phoenix, AZ. It almost never rains during fruit set and harvest. Grape growers can closely control how much water the vines receive. The dry climate dramatically lowers the possibility of mold and mildew.
  3. Consistent Winds – The wind blows up the valley in the morning and down the valley in the afternoon. The regular gusts of warm air keeps the grape clusters small and concentrates the flavors of the fruit.
  4. The Dirt – The main soils of Red Mountain aren’t found elsewhere in the state. Wind-blown Loess silt was brought in by prehistoric floods. The soil also has high alkalinity and calcium carbonate. The excellent drainage allows roots to reach deep to get necessary nutrients and moisture.
  5. The Heat – Red Mountain experiences more growing degree days than any other region in the state. Due to its high latitude, it can get up to 17 hours of sunlight in a day. This creates ideal temperatures for ripening while the cooler evenings allow the grapes to retain their acidity – crucial to a balanced wine.

Well, the five pillars are nice – but what about the wine itself? Stepping inside the Kiona tasting room, we were about to experience it full-on.

Red Mountain Versus The World

JJ led us into a private tasting room and we were greeted with a smile-inducing sight: Eight glass of premium Cabernet Sauvignon laid out at each place around the table. Red Mountain was taking on some of the best wine regions in the world.

Red Mountain in the WorldThe tasting was actually called “Red Mountain in the World.” I prefer to think of it as Red Mountain vs. The World, in a smack-down reminiscent of the recent UFC bout between Conor McGregor and some mean-spirited Russian dude. This tilt had four rounds, with a quartet of Red Mountain wines each taking on a leading wine from another top region.

Round 1 – The 2012 Chateau de Pez St. Estephe Bordeaux (an almost 50-50 blend of Cab and Merlot with a dash of Petit Verdot and Cab Franc added) danced around the ring in ballerina-like fashion with a perfumed nose and well-balanced taste. SRP about $50. The 2015 Hedges Red Mountain La Haute Cuvée came out swinging like a heavyweight champ with earthy and tannic notes. The 100% Cab (SRP $60) is bold and tart. Winner: St. Estephe in a split decision.

Round 2 – Stepping into the octagon next was Italian Brancaia (2013 vintage, $55), a Super Tuscan blend that has garnered critical acclaim. There were notes of mushroom and raspberries, but the Italian style was not a match for the power of the 2015 Col Solare ($75, 100% Cab). This is a dark brooding wine with licorice notes and a finish that took out the Super Tuscan with an elbow blow to the head. Winner: Col Solare

Round 3 – This match pitted two fan favorites. Hailing from Napa Valley, the Chappellet 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) has great acidity, with flavors of earth and wet leaves. Drying tannins on the finish. The Fidelitas 2015 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is elegant and refined with rounded flavors and just the right touch of tannins. It got full approval from tasting team member “The Cabernetor.” Fidelitas got points with the judges for multiple leg kicks. Winner: Fidelitas in a split decision.

Round 4 – With a strong finish, the international team could turn this tag-team competition around. Representing Australia’s McLaren Vale was the 2014 Hickinbotham Trueman Cabernet ($70). Trueman has a fresh style and was light on its feet due to well balanced acidity. Red Mountain was represented by the 2014 Hightower Cellars Cabernet ($40). The Hightower evaded a leg-lock with flavors of beautiful red fruit, mint and a touch of bell pepper. This is an elegant wine with 10% each of Malbec and Merlot. Winner: Hightower

Red Mountain AVA ExcursionThe Decision: Two wines into the blind tasting, the signature style of Red Mountain became apparent. Living up to its nickname of “Muscle Mountain” the wines were bold and assertive with popping fruit flavors and towering tannins. The point was well made: Red Mountain wines compare favorably with the best wine regions in the world. (The international team had a hard time accepting the decision and attempted to throw a steel dolly through the window of the excursion bus as we were leaving.)

Magic On The Mountain

Our excursion included a visit to the Hedges Family Chateau for dinner and a freestyle tasting as well as a horse-drawn ride through the Ciel du Cheval Vineyard.These are two spots recommended to any Red Mountain wine lover.

The evening at Hedges provided a welcome introduction to the many outstanding wineries of Red Mountain. At Ciel de Cheval, we had the opportunity to view firsthand one of the country’s great vineyards during a wagon ride with legendary vineyard manager Dick Boushey.

Ciel du Cheval has 109 acres under vine in 36 separate blocks. Each block has its own irrigation controls and is farmed separately. Weather systems throughout the vineyard provide detailed data for making cultivation decisions.

The prehistoric Missoula Floods left the vineyard with a unique mixture of soils. Over the years attempts to grow  wheat or raise sheep failed. Fortunately, grapes don’t like good soil and the first grapes were planted in 1975. In line with the prevailing thinking at the time, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer were planted. Once the sterling qualities of Red Mountain grapes were discovered, vines were pulled and replanted primarily to reds.

Today there are 36 different customers for Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, including top brands like DeLille Cellars and Col Solare. The vineyard has also sprouted its own wine label, Côtes de Ciel, producing handcrafted small lots offered through a downtown Walla Walla tasting room.

Red Mountain is small, but a mighty force in the world of wine. If you haven’t yet experienced Red Mountain wines, we encourage you to sample these compelling and powerful wines.

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