Idaho’s underdog wine industry is worthy of your attention

The Gem State plays the “little guy” role well, producing fascinating reds, whites and roses.

Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine
                                Meredith Smith, winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, inspects grapes as they arrive during harvest.

Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine Meredith Smith, winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, inspects grapes as they arrive during harvest.

By just about any measurement, Idaho’s wine industry is small compared to its Northwest neighbors. Yet the Gem State’s burgeoning wine industry is among the most exciting and enjoyable to follow.

At an average of 3,000 tons of grapes harvested each fall, the entire Idaho wine industry produces about 160,000 cases of wine a year. That’s not a lot. By comparison, Maryhill Winery in Washington bottles about 80,000 cases each vintage.

Meanwhile, fruit from Idaho’s 1,300 acres of vineyards are spread among 52 wineries, a number dwarfed by other regions. But Idaho wears the underdog role well, producing fascinating reds, whites and roses.

Idaho’s roots in the Northwest wine industry run deep. Wine grapes were planted near Lewiston soon after the Civil War, enough to support a commercial wine production of 40,000 cases, well before the Washington and Oregon industry got started. Alas, Prohibition muted the industry for decades before it re-emerged in 1975 with Ste. Chapelle. Idaho’s largest brand now is owned by Seattle-based Precept Wine.

Today, most of the action is in the Snake River Valley, a bi-state American Viticultural Area northwest of Boise. There, the high-altitude vineyards, touching 3,000 feet in elevation, mean the grapes get ripe while the natural acidity remains. That means the resulting wines are blessed with vibrancy of fruit.

As a result, the growing buzz for Idaho wines recently attracted the attention of international travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, which gave Idaho its own chapter in the upcoming book, “Wine Trails — United States and Canada: Plan 40 Perfect Weekends in Wine Country.”

Here are a few Idaho wines we have tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant, or contact the wineries directly.

Telaya Wine Co. 2016 Turas Red Blend, Snake River Valley, $32: This marks the ninth bottling of the flagship wine for Earl and Carrie Sullivan at Telaya, and their Garden City brand used this syrah-based blend with malbec from Scoria Vineyard. It’s a youthful with a theme of deep blackberry, blueberry and plum backed by silky tannins and bright acidity, a delicious combination that earned it best red wine at the 2018 Idaho Wine Competition.

Sawtooth Winery 2017 Pinot Gris, American, $13: This pinot gris produced by Ste. Chapelle’s Meredith Smith is an indication of the savage winter damage that haunted Idaho growers and winemakers during the 2017 vintage. While the bottle reads, “Proudly produced in Idaho,” the fruit came from beyond the state’s borders. It’s a blend of styles, opening with apricot pie, butterscotch and minerally aromas that lead to a dazzling food-friendly burst of lemon juice and yellow bell pepper flavors.

Parma Ridge Winery 2016 Parma Ridge Vineyards Estate Dry Rosé of Merlot, Snake River Valley, $17: Storm and Stephanie Hodge continue to attract wine lovers living in Boise to spend time in the farming community of Parma by combining their crowd-pleasing cuisine with their expanding estate wine program. They use merlot from their 10-acre vineyard for a slightly off-dry rose that’s loaded with dark plum, raspberry and rose hips, and finished by a spoonful of cherry pie filling. Enjoy with the Korean chicken that Chef Storm plates at his on-premise restaurant.

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2017 Umiker Vineyard Lochsa Chardonnay, Lewis-Clark Valley, $15: Karl Umiker manages the vineyard. His wife, Coco, handles the winemaking at their century farm in the Lewiston Orchards above the Clearwater River. Wonderful aromas and flavors of melted butter, gala apples and lemon zest are also found on the palate. Just the right amount of acidity supports the mouthfeel, which makes for a bright and fresh finish that helped it earn best of class at the 2018 Cascadia International Wine Competition.

Ste. Chapelle 2015 Panoramic Idaho Petite Sirah, Snake River Valley, $28: Meredith Smith took over all of the winemaking at Idaho’s largest winery in 2016, but she spearheaded many of Precept’s high-end programs in her native state prior to her promotion. She produced this petite sirah from Sawtooth Vineyard in a slightly lighter style that makes it quite approachable. Deep aromas of blackberry, sweet cherry, brown sugar and fresh dill lead to concentrated flavors of plum jam and blackberry tea. It’s full-bodied, lush yet balanced, with bright notes of blueberry and pomegranate.

Ste. Chapelle 2016 Open Air Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $20: A year ago, Meredith Smith took best of class in Chardonnay at the Idaho Wine Competition for her work with Block 16 from the 2016 vintage for Ste. Chapelle. Smith’s latest work that references the winery’s summer concert series is a lingerie-style chardonnay, meaning that the 20 percent new oak attracts but doesn’t get in the way. White peach, lemon drop and hazelnut aromas come to life on the palate with grace, as the fruit profile includes bosc pear.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

ARTWORK

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3o0z0rc4urxv9d0/%20%20idaho-wine-sorting.jpg?dl=0

Crews sort through Petite Sirah grapes for Sawtooth Winery in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. (Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

https://www.dropbox.com/s/d83i2trreunmv4h/%20idaho-wine-meredith.jpg?dl=0

Meredith Smith, winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, inspects grapes as they arrive during harvest. (Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

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