Ken Robertson

Idaho’s 60 wineries building in quality

Mention Idaho, and most folks still probably think of potatoes. But there’s a dedicated group of grape growers and winemakers there who are working hard to make their state famous for its grapes as well.

Idaho’s grape-growing and winemaking traditions reach back at least to 1856 anecdotally and the Idaho Wine Commission says the industry was booming from then until 1919. The commission has unearthed a story that appeared in the Idaho Statesman on Sept. 5, 1865, reporting Royal Muscadine plantings in the Lewiston area had survived the winter and were starting to produce grapes.

Alas, as in every other state, Prohibition derailed those efforts, and much like Washington and Oregon, Idaho didn’t really begin working on grape growing and winemaking again until the 1970s.

Following in Washington’s footsteps on a trail blazed by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Ste. Chapelle, founded in 1975 by the Symms family, initially built a reputation for excellent white wines, especially Riesling. Now owned by Precept, it produces a wide array of wines totaling about 130,000 cases of wine annually, making it the state’s biggest winery and likely best-known label.

The industry has grown slowly but consistently in Idaho since then, reaching 60 wineries in 2019 and harvesting 3,000 tons of grapes from the state’s three American Viticultural Areas — the Snake River Valley, recognized in 2007, the Eagle Foothills in 2015 and the Lewis-Clark AVA (also partly in the part of Washington near Clarkston) in 2016.

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The state’s winemakers also reach outside their home vineyards regularly, sourcing grapes from top AVAs in both Washington and Oregon.

The commission launched the Idaho Wine Competition 11 years ago to showcase the state’s products, and I’ve had the privilege of participating as a judge or a panel moderator in nine of those events. At every one, the judges I’ve talked with during and afterward have said they’re impressed by the best wines. In addition, judges who have returned several times say improved grape growing practices and winemaking have impressed them.

From Riesling and a few other whites, Idaho growers and winemakers have expanded to an array of reds, rosés and lesser-known whites, including sparkling wines, with the best showing innovation and outstanding quality.

This year’s competition, which drew 160 entries, shows the versatility of the state’s microclimates. The gold medal winners among whites included a sparkling Chardonnay, an Albariño voted the competition’s top wine, a couple of surprising dry Muscats, Rieslings of every style, including a stunning ice wine, Chardonnay and Viognier. The reds included Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Sirah, Sangiovese and Syrah. The lead grapes in the top red blends included Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Sangiovese and Carménère. And the top rosés were made from Cinsault, Mourvedre and Syrah.

To top it all off, a pair of excellent meads, one strawberry, the other raspberry, won golds despite facing a panel of skeptical judges who confessed they had tasted few meads they would choose to drink.

The panels were made up of veteran judges whose day jobs include pleasing the palates of our region’s wine consumers in wine shops and restaurants. Check out the Idaho Wine Commission website at idahowines.org for complete results.

If you decide to visit, COVID-19 rules are in place at Idaho’s wineries, restaurants and hotels that are similar to Washington’s and Oregon’s. And folks will be masked up and being cautious about social distancing. Calling ahead to confirm winery hours and arrange tastings is recommended.

If in Lewiston, you won’t want to miss Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Parejas Cellars, Vine 46, Two Bad Labs, Jovinea, Rivaura and Colter’s Creek Winery. In the Boise-Caldwell-Garden City area area, I’d suggest 3100 Cellars for sparkling wines, Bitner, Cinder, Hat Ranch, Huston Vineyards, Indian Creek, Koenig, Ste. Chapelle, Telaya and Williamson. Along the way, don’t hesitate to stop at any of the other 40-plus Idaho wineries you encounter.

Idaho will welcome you, whether you choose to visit the Lewiston-Clarkston or the Boise-Caldwell-Garden City areas. Or both. Like all the Northwest’s wineries, they can use an assist during this challenging year.

Wine word: Délestage

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re no longer welcome in France or the rest of the European Union, at least for now. But they can’t keep us from bumbling around in the French language and tangling up our tongues as we try to pronounce it. And since we’re all safely at home or not too far away, at least we don’t have to worry about some Parisian smirking at our struggles.

For folks like me whose struggles with language occur mainly in English, délestage is often called “rack and return,” or maybe simply racking. It’s a winemaker’s technique for producing a softer red wine by reducing those tongue-curling tannins extracted from grape seeds.

Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says it’s particularly helpful in areas where grape seeds tend not to ripen evenly. A winemaker lets the juice, seeds and skins cold soak for several hours, then drains the juice into a separate tank. After allowing the cap of skins and seeds to settle to the bottom and drain for a while, many of the seeds are loosened from the skins and pulp and can be filtered out. Then the juice is pumped back into the original tank and again mixes with the remnants of the cap. Performed daily until almost all the seeds are extracted, délestage removes most of the harsh tannins.

And voila! We have softer red wine that tastes better and does not have to age for years before it becomes pleasant to drink.

KEN ROBERTSON, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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