Wine Tasting in Idaho’s Snake River Valley

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IDAHO WINES
Weaving a Path Through the Snake River Valley

By Cori Solomon

For many wine enthusiasts, the thought of wine being produced in Idaho seems far-fetched. For those who know about Idaho wine, it is a misnomer. The high elevation makes for some extraordinary wine.

 

 

Most people think of Idaho as a potato-growing region but that is actually a misconception. The fertile soils are good for many different types of crops including grapes.

On a recent visit, I discovered ten wineries and explored Boise, the hub to the Snake River Valley. Boise has become a very vibrant city, reminding me of San Louis Obispo. Although a smaller town with a large Basque population, Boise is expanding its culinary horizons as the farm to table movement, known as Live Eat Local and wine industry grows. This concept applies to Idaho’s grapes and wine. The expression farm to glass aptly promotes how Idahoans envision their wine industry because most wine produced stays in Idaho.

Idaho’s wine industry began in 1863. The first wineries in the Pacific Northwest were located in the Northern Clearwater Region of Idaho.  Unfortunately Prohibition put a halt to wine production. Interest in growing grapes in Idaho did not return until 1970.  In 2007 the Snake River Valley became Idaho’s first AVA. Idaho now consists of three appellations Snake River Valley, the southwestern region, Lewis Clark Valley; also known as the northern region and Eagle Foothills. All three regions lie between the Rocky Mountains and the Snake River. Idaho’s wine industry is fast growing. In 2002 there were 11 wineries; today there are 52.

What makes the region different from California, Oregon and Washington is the vinifera/wine grapes thrive in the four-season climate of Idaho. The cold winters allow the vines to go dormant; conserving carbohydrates for the coming season while simultaneously rid the plants of bugs and discourage disease. In the summer cold nights and warm days assist in balancing grape acids and sugars.  The sugar remains high due to the amount of sunshine and the acid levels are maintained by the cool nights. In addition, the Snake River Valley’s lack of rainfall helps mitigate mold and rot.  The high desert keeps the acidic levels balanced.

The soils are a combination of sediments from an ancient lake and volcanoes.  One finds red cinder in the soils. There is a wide range of varietals grown in this region including Riesling, Chardonnay, Muscato, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Roussanne and Gewürztraminer in the whites. The red varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Nebiola, Sangiovese, Cinsault and Barbera. The growing conditions make this an ideal area to produce Ice Wine, the dessert wine made from frozen grapes.

Many winemakers have worked at top-notch wineries in California or Washington but chose to relocate to Idaho. Others wanted a lifestyle change. Most impressive is the consistency and balance of the majority of wines.

  • Sunset View at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards
    Sunset View at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards

My visit exploring the Snake River Valley with the Idaho Wine Commission took me to the following wineries:

Bitner Vineyards: Ron Bitner’s career in entomology/bees enabled him to spend time in Australia where he was influenced by their wines. Bitner is one of the few wineries in Idaho to be Live Certified, which means the vineyards are chemical free and beneficial to insects. On the humorous side, Bitner’s Menopause Merlot honors women who have hit that stage in life; making it is a must try.

Huston Vineyards: Gregg Huston and Mary Alger established Huston Vineyards in 2006. The volcanic soils and long sunny days create ideal conditions for growing the grapes for their signature wines. Gregg feels wine is an extension of food. Huston’s mission is to be a farmer first and winemaker second, thereby bringing the best of both together. Houston’s flagship wine, Chicken dinner White showcases a sweet yet savory quality. It goes without saying; the wine pairs excellently with chicken.

Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth Wineries: One of three women winemakers that I met in Idaho, Meredith Smith was an accountant before changing occupations. She is the winemaker of both Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth.  Unique to Ste. Chapelle is the Chateau Series Soft Huckleberry.  This wine combines Huckleberries with Riesling.

Coiled Wines: The story of Leslie Preston, winemaker/owner of Coiled wines is an analogy to the winding path of the Snake River’s flow through Idaho’s AVA and Leslie’s property. Leslie started what she calls the “Riesling Revolution”.  Leslie created Idaho’s first sparkling wine, a sparkling Riesling called Rizza. Discover more about Coiled Wines on WrittenPalette.com. 

Hat Ranch Winery/Vale Wine Co.: Owners Tim and Helen Harless named their winery after Tim’s great grandfather’s homestead.  They also own Vale Wine Co.  As a commercial airline pilot based out of Los Angeles, Tim’s engineering background and technical skills plays a role in the wine making process. Their goal is offering artisan blends, lesser known wine varietals, and hand-produced small lot wines.

Koenig Vineyards: This winery is the biggest and grandest. Greg Koenig was the first to make Nebbiolo in Idaho. Currently his pet project is Zinfandel.  Greg is also winemaker at Bitner and consulting winemaker at 3 Horse Ranch. Most impressive are Koenig’s Ice Wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon Ice Wine, which is different from the usual Riesling based Ice Wine.

Telaya Wine Co.: The name Telaya combines owner/winemaker Earl and Carrie Sullivan’s two favorite places, the Tetons and La Playa. Specializing in Rhones, wine symbolizes a journey and a meeting place.

Split Rail Winery/Strange Folk Wines: This winery has a more whimsical fun take on wines. Jed Glavin’s philosophy is to be unconventional. Jed also sells wine in a can called Strange Folks and has a program where you bring your growler back for wine refills.

Cinder Wines: The winery’s name pays tribute to the Snake River Valley volcanic cinder soils.  Melanie Kraus winemaker/owner vibrant terroir approach to making wine is quite evident.

3 Horse Ranch Vineyards: Considered the highest elevation and located in the Eagle Foothills, this winery has the most spectacular view and topography reminiscent of the Wild West. Owner/winemaker Gary Cunningham creates wines in a more traditional style.

 

Today’s wineries of the Snake River Valley are pioneers paving the way to establishing a name worldwide for Idaho Wines. They are the appellation’s river that coils like a snake weaving along the soils of lava rock and lake sediment bringing its unique terroir to the grapes they grow.  Their destiny deserves merit, as you discover the wines of Idaho.

To plan your Idaho Wine Adventure, visit https://wine.idaho.gov.

Cori Solomon is a freelance writer/photographer residing in Los Angeles, California. Cori is well versed in travel, art, food and wine as she has done extensive traveling and has collected wine since the 1980s. Cori’s background is real estate and art. Cori looks for the story that is behind the restaurant, chef, winery, winemaker or artist. As Cori often travels with her dogs, four Salukis, some of her travel articles deal with pet-friendly hotels and locations. Cori is a member of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association. Learn more at www.WrittenPalette.com

 


About the Author:

Cori Solomon is a freelance writer/photographer residing in Los Angeles, California. Cori is well versed in travel, art, food and wine as she has done extensive traveling and has collected wine since the 1980s. Cori’s background is real estate and art. Cori looks for the story that is behind the restaurant, chef, winery, winemaker or artist. As Cori often travels with her dogs, four Salukis, some of her travel articles deal with pet-friendly hotels and locations. Cori is a member of the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association

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