BENTON CITY — Red Mountain, a little hill on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, has fast become the premiere location for growing red wine grapes in Washington. Sorry, Walla Walla.
At just 4,040 acres, it is the state’s smallest American Viticultural Area, and it’s the second smallest in the entire Pacific Northwest. Only Ribbon Ridge in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is more diminutive.
It’s sort of a funny place because it isn’t red (it’s brown) and it isn’t a mountain by many standards (it’s more of a ridge or benchland with the Yakima River running below it). Yet it’s home to some of the state’s most famous vineyards, including Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Heart of the Hill, Kiona and others.
It could be said that Red Mountain is not unlike Oakville, the famous grape-growing district in Napa Valley. It’s the same size, known for cabernet sauvignon and without rival for quality.
Red Mountain — so named because the cheatgrass on its slopes turns red each spring — is more than half covered in vines, making it more green than red, and more than half the acreage is cabernet sauvignon, followed by merlot, syrah and malbec. The first vines were planted in 1976, before irrigation and electricity arrived. Recently, outside investors have jumped at the opportunity to be a part of Red Mountain.
Here are a few examples of wines made from Red Mountain grapes we’ve tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Three of Cups 2014 Le Croyant Petite Sirah, Red Mountain, $32: Heart of the Hill Vineyard, at 149 acres, is the largest of Kiona Vineyards’ three sites on Red Mountain. Work with this muscular red Rhône grape helps Mike Metheny stand out from the Woodinville crowd. Aromas of chocolate-covered pomegranate, blueberry and hickory smoke lead to viscous flavors of blackberry and black plum. Sinewy tannins lead to a finish of vanilla extract, minerality and coffee. (15.2 percent alcohol)
Northwest Cellars 2013 Scooteney Flats Vineyard Malbec, Red Mountain, $48: Grapes don’t come cheaply on Red Mountain, but Kirkland vintner Robert Delf and Yakima Valley winemaker Robert Smasne continue their success with malbec from Scooteney Flats Vineyard. Gorgeous aromas of rose hips, black cherry, blueberry and white pepper lead into a graceful presentation on the palate of the same descriptors. Those lush berries and well-managed tannins make for a bright, juicy and long mouth feel. (14.1%)
Ross Andrew Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $30: This reserve approach by Ross Andrew Mickel features two of Red Mountain’s most important sites — historic Ciel du Cheval and emerging star Quintessence. Textures of chocolate and cherry make for a beautiful entry as the Red Mountain tannins have begun to resolve themselves. Pomegranate acidity, a touch of pencil shavings and creme de cassis begin to describe the finish. (14.4%)
Convergence Zone Cellars 2013 Downburst Cabernet Franc, Red Mountain, $26: Scott Greenberg works out of both Woodinville and North Bend, but his heartbeat seems tied to Red Mountain. In this case, it’s cabernet franc from Kiona Vineyard, and there’s richness throughout. Massive black cherry, plum and vanilla flavors mix with round tannins, leading to a big and complex finish of toast, mocha and mint. (14.4%)
Noviello Vineyards 2014 Syrah, Red Mountain, $48: Charlie “Wine Boss” Hoppes works with Fredric and Ana Stern on their young project near the Columbia River resort community of Orondo, Washington, and the Richland winemaker pulled from rising star Red Heaven Vineyard for this chocolaty syrah. Aromas of Chukar Cherry, blackberry and cola lead to bright flavors of boysenberry, blueberry and pomegranate seeds wrapped in bittersweet chocolate. (15.02%)
Sparkman Cellars 2013 Ruckus Syrah, Red Mountain, $52: Christian Sparkman deepens his reputation with Ruckus, a Côte-Rôtie style of syrah he began courting in 2006. The focus is on Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, and the new French oak helps make for enticing aromas of caramel corn with sweet plums, leather, cocoa and toast. Its structure is suave, as marionberry and blueberry flavors are framed by fine-grained tannins and polished by a layer of bittersweet chocolate. (14.5%)
Côtes de Ciel 2012 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Flagship Reserve Red Wine, Red Mountain, $49: The Holmes family produced 53 barrels of wine from the inaugural 2012 vintage for its Côtes de Ciel brand. They selected their best six for this Meritage-style blend of merlot (50%), cabernet sauvignon (33%) and cabernet franc, and the nose includes vanilla and chocolate that pick up elderberry, slate and white pepper. Broad, yet fine-grained tannins are backed by black cherry, cola and blueberry acidity. (15.4%)
Murray 2016 Rosé, Red Mountain, $18: Tim and Kelly Hightower pull syrah from their Mother Block Vineyard on Red Mountain, and they pressed it promptly and devoted it to neutral oak for four months before bottling it under screwcap and their second label that serves as a tribute to their faithful labrador. The nose is reminiscent of Sanpellegrino Chinotto, peach taffy and red currant, and it’s followed by flavors and texture of orange creamsicle, white peach and pink strawberry. Its sturdy finish is marked by red currant skins. (14.1%)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.