Horse Heaven Hills important to state’s wine industry

In the 11 years since the Horse Heaven Hills became an official American Viticultural Area, it has gained incredible importance for the Washington wine industry.

The Horse Heaven Hills is a warm, remote area of Washington wine country, stretching along the state’s southern border east of the Cascades.

Its oldest vines were planted in 1972 at Mercer Ranch Vineyards (now Champoux Vineyards). And appropriately, those first vines were Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important grape in the region, taking up nearly 5,800 of the 13,657 acres of wine grapes in the AVA. As recently as 2009, fewer than 3,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted.

Today, few wineries and tasting rooms actually are based in the Horse Heaven Hills, with Columbia Crest being the most prominent. But winemakers throughout Washington crave the grapes coming from the region — particularly the reds. In fact, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA is the second-most-planted region in Washington, after the Yakima Valley, and its nearly 10,000 acres of red wine grapes serve as the backbone of the Washington wine industry.

Here are several delicious examples of Washington wineries using red wine grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills. All of these wines earned gold medals at the Cascadia Wine Competition in March. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Bunnell Family Cellar 2012 Discovery Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $48: Ron Bunnell knows the Horse Heaven Hills well from his years of making wines for Chateau Ste. Michelle. This wine shows off its aging in French oak, then readily displays mouth-watering aromas and flavors of black cherry, blackberry, plum and cassis. The tannins are forthright but controlled and help build a long, satisfying finish. (14.5% alc.)

Mercer Estates Winery 2012 Reserve Cavalie, $42: Winemaker Jessica Munnell leads with Merlot for this beautiful red blend. Aromas of toasted oak, black cherry, black currant, vanilla bean, nutmeg and clove. Its plummy entry leads to a blend of pomegranate and blueberry with a finish of bittersweet chocolate and raspberry. (14.7% alc.)

Robert Karl Cellars 2013 Malbec, $26: This Spokane winery used grapes from McKinley Springs Vineyard for this Malbec. Spice, herbs and brambleberry open up its aromatics, leading to flavors of deep, lush varietal fruit emblematic of Malbec, a dab of chocolate and carefully managed tannins. (14.2% alc.)

Smasne Cellars 2012 Coyote Canyon Vineyard RO Merlot, $40: Yakima Valley native Robert Smasne has crafted a superb Merlot with aromas that promise cherry, blackberry. On the palate, deep flavors of blueberry and dark chocolate are backed by firm tannins. (13.9% alc.)

Daven Lore Winery 2013 Petit Verdot, $29: Winemaker Gordon Taylor relied heavily on grapes from Double Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills for this superb example of Petit Verdot. Aromas of hazelnut, espresso, crushed herbs and black cherry lead to flavors of ripe plum, toast with black currant jam and a couple of turns of black pepper. (13.5% alc.)

Westport Winery 2013 Charterboat Chick, $28: Notes of coffee and black fruit overlaid by plum lead to a lush palate of black cherry, blackberry, blueberry and coffee, finished off with well-managed tannins. When you pick up a bottle, the rain slicker-clad woman on the label is none other than owner Kim Roberts. (14% alc.)

Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2014 The Expedition Merlot, $15: This Walla Walla winery’s affordable Merlot offers a hint of pepper, then blackberries and mint in its nose. On the tongue, flavors of blackberries and black currants emerge, followed quickly by blackberries and then grippy tannins and AVA’s typical minerality on the finish. (13.8% alc.)

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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