With a history of abundant mineral and gem production, Idaho has long lived up to its nickname of the Gem State. It’s a name increasingly fitting for the wine world too, given the impressive “gems” Idaho is now producing in its three established American Viticultural Areas: Snake River Valley (2007), and Eagle Foothills (2015), and Lewis-Clark Valley (2016).
SNAKE RIVER VALLEY AVA
Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries
Established in 1976, Ste. Chapelle was Idaho’s first (and today its largest) winery. Winemaking is in the capable hands of Idaho native Meredith Smith. She also heads up winemaking for nearby Sawtooth Winery, where she began more than a decade ago after completing Washington State University’s Viticulture & Enology Program in 2009. Gold and double gold medals are plentiful for her wines.
If a sweet wine tickles your palate, you will swoon for Ste. Chapelle’s 2019 Soft Huckleberry, which Meredith crafted from Riesling and huckleberries. Juicy sweet huckleberries married to Ste. Chapelle’s lively, peachy, minerally, citrus-splashed Riesling creates a delicious wine, perfect for a picnic or afternoon sipper.
The Sawtooth Classic Fly Series 2016 GSM ($32), a 62% Syrah, 25% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache blend, is deep and stimulating. Flavors of spice-rubbed roast meat, wild blackberries, an earthy edge and black raspberries decorate the palate. Rich while finely balanced, it boasts approachable, well-integrated tannins and a savory close.
Sawtooth’s 2018 Malbec presents luscious aromas and flavors of dark plums, spicy black pepper, marionberries, olallieberries, and dark chocolate. It expresses fine depth and length, with firm tannins and skillful oak elements sitting nicely in the background. The extended savory finish is a perfect culmination.
Fujishin Family Cellars
Fujishin Family Cellars was established in 2009 by winemaker Martin Fujishin and General Manager Teresa Moye. Martin and Teresa created a second label, Free Dog Wines, adding further depth to their award-winning lineup. They currently produce 3,500 cases a year. A Snake River Valley native, Martin taught Viticulture and Enology at Treasure Valley Community College prior to establishing the winery, and his wife Teresa has a flair for art; together their artistry is magical.
Located at the top of the Sunnyslope region, their estate vineyards reach an elevation of 2,600 feet. The Free Dog Wines 2019 Albariño is their first vintage of Albariño (from Williamson Vineyards sourced fruit). It is magnificent, beginning with the citrus-kissed stone fruit aroma. Filling out the palate are layers of nectarines, blanched almonds, lemon-lime and a thread of minerality. It’s immaculately balanced with a zesty finale.
Martin’s captivating 2018 Tempranillo ($25.95) is bold, with boysenberries, black plums, earthiness, licorice, and a dusting of herbs interlacing harmoniously. Complex and full bodied yet elegant and fresh with an ethereal quality, it boasts a velvety, long-lasting finish. And don’t miss Fujishin’s 2017 Petit Verdot ($25.95), among the best single variety Petit Verdot bottlings I have tasted.
Kerry Hill Winery
Kerry Hill Winery was named after the exotic Kerry Hill sheep that founder/owner Mindy Mayer raises on her estate. Mindy purchased the land in 2016 and is rightly proud of the healthy ecosystem created on her 35-acre property, charmingly adorned by an old-fashioned sheep wagon. Tim Harless and Dr. Helen Harless, and Isabelle Dutartre craft the Kerry Hill portfolio of wines.
Kerry Hill’s 2019 Wild Rosé of Malbec ($23) is a snappy, floral-scented dry Rosé, perfect as a lunch accompaniment or apéritif. It bursts with fruity notes of Golden Delicious apples, watermelon, apricots and mandarin oranges. Well balanced with bright acidity, it is refreshing from start to finish.
The winery’s 2018 Private Reserve Wild Poppy Malbec ($34) is dense and concentrated with blackberries, marionberries, huckleberries and earthy notes melding with accents of subtle oak and a sprinkling of savory spice. This deep, flavorful wine is well balanced, with a persistent finish.
Proprietors Mary and Gregg Alger wear many hats at Huston Vineyards and are passionate about each role. They’re proud winery and vineyard owners, farmers and parents to two sons, Jacob and Joshua. They have seven acres under vine and produce 7,000 cases per year from estate vines and sourced fruit. Huston wines showed beautifully during my first visit in 2016 and remain well-crafted .
Gregg and Mary’s newly released 2019 Private Reserve Chardonnay ($29) is a melding of new-world and old-world style Chardonnay, with its forward fruit harmonizing with underlying earthy elements. Aromas and flavors of crunchy apples, creamy pears, tropical fruit, vanilla bean, earthiness, and minerality entwine, and spicy oak elements (from 30% new French and American oak aging) add depth and dimension.
Also entrancing is Huston’s 2016 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah ($45). Intense and firmly structured, these two powerhouse varieties collide exquisitely on the palate with precise balance and impressive gracefulness. Firm tannins frame Bing cherries, black currants, spiced plum preserves, leather and shades of oak flowing seamlessly across the palate. It’s approachable now, while promising age-worthiness too.
EAGLE FOOTHILLS AVA
3 Horse Ranch Vineyards
Meeting 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards founders Gary and Martha Cunningham in 2016 left me with a very favorable impression of the Eagle Foothills AVA (the first sub-AVA of the larger Snake River Valley AVA). The Cunninghams established the vineyard and winery in 2002, planting nine acres of grapes. They now have 60 acres planted, with vineyards reaching elevations up to 3,000 feet, and produce 9,000 cases of wine annually.
The winery’s 2016 Single Vineyard Vivacious ($18), an energetic blend of Viognier and Roussanne, captured my attention with its apple blossom aroma. In the mouth, layers of citrus, apricot nectar, peaches, lemon thyme and minerality meld with a shade of earthiness. The result is exhilarating. Brisk acidity plays a beautiful supporting role to the abundant fruit, and the texture is satin smooth.
Aerating the 2016 Single Vineyard Syrah ($40) unleashes an alluring dark fruit aroma. Layers of blackberries, savory herbs, cassis, saddle leather, purple plums, and spice-encrusted meat coat the palate. It’s elegant and well balanced with velvety tannins and a memorable finale. Owner/winemaker Gary and co-owner/vintner Martha were the first to sport the Eagle Foothills designation on a wine label (2014 Syrah). And how fitting; Martha was instrumental in getting this AVA established.
LEWIS-CLARK VALLEY AVA
Clearwater Canyon Cellars
Clearwater Canyon Cellars has produced gold medal-winning wines consistently over the past several years. Owners Coco (winemaker) and husband Karl (vineyard manager) work hand in hand tending to the vineyards and crafting exemplary wines. The first vines at their estate Umiker Vineyard in Idaho’s Lewis Clark Valley AVA, were planted in 2003. Their 6.5-acre Umiker Vineyard thrives in the deep silty, loamy soils at an elevation of 1,350 feet. Annual production is 4,800 cases.
The 2019 Umiker Vineyard Lochsa Chardonnay ($17) opens with a mouthwatering aroma that gets the juices flowing. It’s high-spirited on the palate as Golden Delicious apples, Comice pears, a trace of fresh-cut herbs, tangerines and lemon gelato burst into a colorful kaleidoscope of flavors. It’s well balanced with crisp acidity and the finish is vivid and focused. The 2018 Umiker Vineyard extraordinary Merlot ($28) showcases an expressive nose of forest berries and spice. It’s well defined and pure, with blueberries, Satsuma plums, boysenberry jam, vanilla, red currant, pipe tobacco, and well-integrated oak unraveling elegantly in the mouth. Smoothly textured and lush, it maintains pristine balance through the long, engaging finish.
ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier, Certified Wine Specialist, wine educator and professional wine judge. Reach Ellen at email@example.com.