Red Mountain Rises To New Heights
An excellent starting point to unravel the allure of Washington State’s Red Mountain AVA is Kiona Vineyards. John Williams and Jim Holmes planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975. At the time Washington State was considered a first class white wine region with little prospect for good reds.
That all changed with the first vintage from Kiona in 1980, as it foreshadowed the potential for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Today the winery continues under the direction of the Williams family. The 270-acre estate winery produces about 25,000 cases annually, earning the title of a “big little winery,” according to John’s grandson JJ Williams, director of operations. The winery grows grapes for more than 60 other wineries.
Red Mountain receives 16 to 17 hours of sunlight in the summer, thanks to its higher latitude and southwestern-facing slope. That’s about two hours more than Napa Valley during growing season. At 5.8 inches of rain annually, the area receives less rain than Phoenix. The result? Grapes with smaller berries, increased tannins and concentrated flavors.
A Lemberger Superstar
While 60% of Kiona’s vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain is not a one-trick pony. During a recent tasting, the diversity and brilliance of Red Mountain wines were highlighted.
Fans of Lemberger will be surprised to learn that Kiona produced the first commercial Lemberger in the US and is the largest producer of Lemberger in the country. The Kiona 2016 Estate Lemberger has deep flavors of earth with minerality. The 2014 Mourvedre from Syncline uses fruit from Kiona’s famed Heart of the Hill Vineyard. It has low-key tannins, pure flavors of blueberry and is a superstar in the tasting room.
Fidelitas is known for artfully crafted Bordeaux-style wines. The 2016 Old Vine Merlot uses grapes from Kiona as well as the Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard. It was a special treat from the two oldest Merlot blocks in Red Mountain.
We sampled the delicious Kiona 2014 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon and the Betz 2014 Heart of the Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. This shows the refined power of Red Mountain Cabs. The Kiona Cab had flavors of sage and mint while the Betz showed savory notes.
As a surprise we closed with a 2018 Kiona Chenin Blanc Ice Wine. Who knew? It is a true ice wine with bright flavors and acidity. A fitting final taste for a winery that was started with Chenin Blanc and Lemberger.
Kelly and Tim Hightower are the dynamic duo. No, they don’t don costumes and fight crime. What they do is equally dramatic -- they produce highly acclaimed wines from their 15-acre Red Mountain estate.
They started Hightower Cellars in 1997 in Woodinville, using grapes primarily from Red Mountain. Their first vintage was 221 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. Five years later they bought their 15 acres on Red Mountain. Today they grow 10 acres of Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
Tim and Kelly are co-winemakers and are involved in every phase of the winemaking process. “We taste the barrels individually and then try different combinations,” said Kelly during a recent visit. “We get to be more like artists.”
There is another key member of the team – Riley the winery dog. Riley is a yellow lab and currently top dog at the winery. Former winery dog Murray is immortalized with his own line of wines.
Small Is Beautiful
The Murray 2017 Rosé is made with Syrah from the J. Hightower Vineyard and delivers crisp strawberry and mineral flavors for a mere $18. The Murray 2017 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is an outstanding value at $25. It is lush with cherry and spice notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon is joined by small quantities of Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
The 2015 Hightower Merlot is a ringing example of great Red Mountain Merlot. It is eminently drinkable with smooth dark fruit notes, medium body and just a touch of briar.
Half the grapes for the winery’s most acclaimed wine come from the Hightower estate vineyard located at elevations between 750 and 850 feet. The 2015 Red Mountain Reserve is made with the best barrels from the vintage. It is unfiltered and unfined and gets aging in mostly new oak. The Reserve has 14% Malbec, which adds refinement to the concentrated flavors of the Red Mountain Cab. It has swirls of black currant, wild cherry, cocoa and oak. At $55, this was one of the top wines tasted during our recent tour of Washington.
Hightower Cellars is a small production winery, with about 4,000 cases produced annually. That allows Tim and Kelly to personally oversee the winemaking and provide outstanding hospitality at their unique tasting room with a scenic view of Red Mountain Vineyards. Hightower has high standards that demonstrate the magical power of Red Mountain.