Wine Reviews: Exploring Idaho Wine

People make wine in all 50 states. You’ve probably heard this before and thought: Yeah, but how many states produce wine worth buying and drinking? California, Oregon and Washington State lead the pack, of course, and wines from New York and Virginia have been showing great stuff for many years now.

So, which state is next to prove itself to the broader American palate? Michigan is home to some exciting vino. Missouri has been a key player in the history of American viticulture. And I’m a big fan of wines from some high elevation vineyards in Arizona. New Mexico, Texas, Maryland — the patriotic palate has plenty of options.

Well, what about Idaho?

When I told my wife I’d be tasting through a dozen Idaho wines she asked: “Umm… are they potato wines?”

I’m sure Idaho winemakers have heard similar comments more times than they care to remember. It can’t be easy convincing the average American wine drinker they should consider shelling out money for a wine from a state they know little about and have probably never visited. But if you shelve any preconceived notions and actually taste the wines, you may be surprised.

Idaho wine isn’t new, but it’s growing. In 2002, the state was home to just 11 wineries. By 2014 that number had grown to 51, according to the Idaho Wine Commission. These wineries produce more than 200,000 cases of wine a year, but that amount doesn’t even put Idaho in the top ten states in terms of production. (A bit of perspective: Ohio, the tenth-largest wine producing state, churns out about four times more wine than Idaho, according to Wines Vines Analytics.) So it’s understandable that Idaho wines don’t get much recognition on retail shelves or placement on restaurant lists outside of the immediate area.

Most of the states wineries are located in the Snake River Valley, southwest of Boise. In 2007, the Snake River Valley became the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA), an area that includes parts of eastern Washington. Several Idaho wineries in the Willow Creek area (a more hilly and rugged region) applied for their own AVA status in 2013, but that AVA is still pending.

I’d tasted a few Idaho Rieslings before, but this mixed case was my first real introduction to the state’s wines. And, I have to say, they make a good argument that Idaho wines should be taken seriously. I appreciated the freshness in a lot of these wines, and many of them have moderate alcohol levels. Also, the price points are generally quite attractive. If I have an overall concern about this lot, it’s the overreliance on new oak. Much of the underlying fruit seems solid, but too many of the nuances are overpowered by toasted barrel scents and flavors.

Still, if this batch is any sign, there’s a lot to explore in Idaho.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

Review: 2012 Ste. Chapelle Riesling Special Harvest - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $12
Rich golden color. Bright nose of limes and white peaches with sweeter notes of honeycomb and sugarcane, and a new plastic toy smell (I know that sounds strange but it’s something I think of in some Rieslings, and this one totally has it). Sweet and rich on the palate, the acidity helps it out a little bit, but we’re dealing with a honeyed wine, covered in white peaches, guava paste and sugar cane. Fun and tasty but not enough verve, lacking in acid and minerality. (84 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Bitner Vineyards Riesling Reserve - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $17
Pale yellow color. Bright and clean on the nose, fresh laundry, limes, green apples, hints of white pepper and chalk. Bright acid, a lean and taut wine (0.5% residual sugar) with crisp green apple, lime peel and nectarine elements. A nice mix of stony minerality and chalk. Not too deep, but it does what it does well. (85 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Koenig Vineyards Viognier Williamson Vineyard - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $15
Pretty light gold color. Bright aromatics, pineapple and kiwi mixes with lime and green melon, some breezy, floral and honeyed components as well. Full-bodied, moderate acid, a creamy, rich body. Flavors of cantaloupe, kiwi and white peaches, the fruit is juicy and tropical. Notes of almond and birch bark, some honeycomb, floral notes last onto the finish. Interesting to taste this Idaho interpretation of Viognier, a richer, chunkier style but still welcome on the table.  (86 points IJB)

Review: 2010 Snake River Winery GSM Arena Valley - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $21
Pale ruby color. Smells of tart red currants, raspberry, matched with pepper, dried roses, some clove and toasted oak. Medium-bodied, medium tannins that are fined down nicely around the edges, some refreshing acid. Flavors of tart red currants mix with blackberry and raspberry jam, the wine is laced with notes of clove, pepper and toasted oak, a bit too much of the latter for my palate. But it finishes tart and crunchy with floral and spice notes. 55% Grenache, 35% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. (86 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Colter’s Creek Koos Koos Kia - Idaho
SRP: $22
Medium ruby color. Nose of currant compote, plum sauce, jammy raspberries, a sweet and spicy element, like honeyed fruit tea and black tea mixed together, some alcohol shows through at 14.2%. Full-bodied, a rich and chewy mouthfeel with moderate tannins, providing a dusty structure, some freshness from the moderate acid. Dusty and earthy, with black pepper sauce, bay leaf, black tea, some complex notes of cedar, coffee and roasted chestnut but it holds the new oak well. A big wine but balanced quite well with a lot of complexity to unravel, could last for four or five years, I’m guessing. A big five Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Impressive stuff. (88 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Clearwater Canyon Merlot - Idaho
SRP: $25
Medium ruby color. Bright and floral on the nose, tangy strawberries and cherries, some spicy tobacco, eucalyptus and cherry wood notes. Medium-bodied, the tannins are dusty and approachable, the acid keeps the wine tangy. Bright red and black cherries, some strawberry jam notes. Fresh and juicy and accessible at 13.7% alcohol, I like the earthy and eucalyptus notes. But vanilla, coffee and cedar drown out the finish. Good fruit underneath, but a bit too strong on the oak. (85 points IJB)

Review: 2010 Fujishin Family Cellars Amatino Red Blend - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $23
Deep ruby color. Jammy black and red berries on the nose, along with violets, rich and sweet earthy notes mixed in with some sweet basil and sage aromas, toasty oak. Full bodied, velvety tannins still providing plenty of structure, moderate acid. Rich black currant, black cherries, the jammy and chewy fruit is supported by savory notes of cracked pepper and beef brisket. Toasted coconut and mocha, lots of it, but the structure and strength of the other flavors pulls the wine together and keeps the oak from dominating. 92% Syrah, 5% Viognier and 3% Petite Sirah.  14.6% alcohol. (88 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Cinder Tempranillo - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $30
A deep ruby color. Smells smoky and toasty, like someone threw chestnuts and cedar planks on a fire pit then doused them in cherries and plums, then topped it off with tobacco and mocha. Medium-bodied, smooth tannins, the acid offers freshness. Black cherries, plums and some red currant fruit, which is matched by notes of toasted almond, roasted coffee, backed up by some spicy tobacco and black pepper. Bold and toasty (21 months in oak) but this is still a smooth and approachable wine that’s good for drinking in the near term. 13.5% alcohol. (86 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Sawtooth Tempranillo Classic Fly Series - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $25
Dark ruby colored. Aromas of roasted coffee, black and red cherries, a deep sense of tobacco and soil. On the palate, the wine shows dusty-velvety tannins on a medium-bodied frame with medium acid. Spicy red raspberries, juicy cherries, some tart blackberries, the fruit is mixed with spiced coffee, cedar shavings and toasted almonds. Feels silky and smooth on the finish, an interesting take on this variety, but perhaps a bit too high on the oak that it jumbles the other aspects. (86 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Sawtooth Malbec Trout Trilogy - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $35
Light purple color. Smells of tart red currants, juicy black and red cherries, topped with some roasted chestnut, violet and potting soil aromas. Full-bodied (14.6% alcohol), silky tannins but plenty of structure, the refreshing acid really keeps this wine alive and bright. Chewy blackberry and plum fruit but tart aspects as well. Earthy with charcoal, graphite and tar accents, definitely showing its oak signature with chestnut, mocha and dark chocolate shavings, but there’s a lovely balance and freshness to this wine, elegance even. Drinking well now but I’d love to revisit this wine in three or four years. Impressed. (90 points IJB)

Review: 2012 Huston Vineyards Malbec - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $29
Deep ruby color. The nose is dark and deep with currants, fig paste, blackberries, anise, charcoal and freshly paved roads. Silky tannins but still sturdy, refreshing acidity, makes for a pleasant and unassuming presence on the palate. Plenty of chewy fruit though, blackberries and black cherries, hints of crunchy skins in there. A complex web of anise, flower pot, sweet cedar, eucalyptus, pine tree and cherry wood. Moderate-long finish with hints of mineral and graphite. Ready to drink but time ahead, a very good effort, surprising in its balance. (88 points IJB)

Review: 2011 Hat Ranch Winery Malbec - Idaho, Snake River Valley
SRP: $27
Vibrant ruby color. Nose of tart plums and red currants, rose petals, some smoke, earth, coffee and cedar. Medium-bodied, this wine shows some refreshing acid and fleshy tannins with a smooth but slightly dusty mouthfeel. Juicy black currants and plums abound, the fruit is blended in with dark chocolate shavings, espresso grounds. Very pretty, bright and refreshing wine despite the rich and ever-present oak (24 months in oak). I’d like to try this again in two years.  (87 points IJB)