Idaho has long been considered an agricultural haven, known for growing crops such as onions, corn, apples, cherries, peaches and, yes, potatoes.
Now, the Gem State is gaining a reputation as a burgeoning wine region.
Grapes have been grown in Idaho for more than a century, but the modern wine industry began in the 1970s with the launch of Ste. Chapelle — still Idaho’s largest producer.
Now Idaho is home to more than 50 wineries that stretch from Boise in the south to the top end of the Panhandle near the Canadian border. The majority of Idaho’s vineyards — more than 1,000 acres — are grown in the warm, high-altitude Snake River Valley that surrounds the cities of Caldwell and Nampa west of Boise.
In addition, a few vineyards are being planted near the city of Lewiston, where the proposed Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area is gaining momentum.
We recently conducted the fifth annual Idaho Wine Competition and tasted through about 150 entries. The judges were impressed with Idaho winemakers’ progress in crafting high-quality wines.
The wines we’ve reviewed here are examples of the best we tasted. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Huston Vineyards 2012 Malbec, Snake River Valley, $29: Malbec is a minor grape in its native Bordeaux, but it’s becoming a star in the New World, and this is a delicious example. It opens with aromas of boysenberry, green tea and cola, followed by flavors of Marionberry, pomegranate, white pepper and blueberry. It’s all backed by impressive acidity and sturdy tannins. This won best red wine and best of show. (14.3 percent alcohol)
Coiled Wines 2013 Dry Riesling, Snake River Valley, $17: Owner/winemaker Leslie Preston learned her trade in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, then came home to Idaho to launch her brand. Her 2012 Dry Riesling earned best-of-show honors last year, and this wine nearly repeated the feat, winning best white wine. It’s a gorgeous wine with aromas of Honeycrisp apple, lemon zest and spice, followed by bright, crisp, focused flavors of apple, lychee and Asian pear. It is a weighty wine with complexity and concentration. (13 percent alcohol)
Bitner Vineyards 2012 Late Harvest Reserve Riesling, Snake River Valley, $19: Ron Bitner planted some of the Snake River Valley’s early vines and is a stalwart supporter of the Idaho wine industry. Winemaker Greg Koenig has crafted a gorgeous sweet wine with aromas of dried apricot, pineapple and peach, followed by succulent flavors of ripe tree fruit dripping with honey and spice. This won best dessert wine. (10.8 percent alcohol)
Sawtooth Estate Winery 2013 Classic Fly Series Cinsault Rosé, Snake River Valley, $15: Who knew Cinsault, a rare red Rhône variety, was grown in Idaho? Well, it’s only a few rows, and winemaker Meredith Smith has turned it into a superb pink wine with bright, inviting aromas of raspberry and strawberry, followed by slightly off-dry flavors of delicate cherry. This was rated best rosé.(13.3 percent alcohol)
Syringa Winery 2011 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $24: Tempranillo, a Spanish red variety best known in the Rioja region, might just be the right variety for the Snake River Valley. This opens with aromas of cherry, rhubarb pie and spices, followed by flavors of cranberry, dried herbs and a complex hint of earthiness. It’s a gorgeous wine that exhibits purity of fruit. This earned a unanimous double gold medal. (12.9 percent alcohol)
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2012 Umiker Vineyard Syrah, Idaho, $28: Clearwater Canyon is in the proposed Lewis-Clark Valley AVA surrounding the cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., and this is where these grapes are grown, so the region already is shown great promise. It opens with aromas of dark chocolate, plum and blackberry, followed by delicious flavors of dark fruit and bacon backed with solid acidity. This won a gold medal. (14 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.