Of all the brown ridges in Washington’s Columbia Valley, perhaps none is more important to winemakers than Red Mountain.
It is a 4,040-acre ridge on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley that has a history of grape growing and winemaking that stretches back to the 1970s. It is the smallest American Viticultural Area in Washington. (And the second smallest in the Pacific Northwest, after Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge).
Some will argue that it has become the most important growing region in Washington. When a wine lover sees “Red Mountain” on a label, the impression is almost a guarantee of heft and quality. What makes this benchland that is little more than a sliver of the Washington wine industry so important?
Start with heat. Each vintage, Red Mountain ranks among the warmest areas in the Columbia Valley. The soil is sandy, prompting the vines to reach deep into the ground for sustenance. A lack of water kept Red Mountain from reaching its full potential. That changed several years ago with the installment of a new irrigation system. Now, Red Mountain’s historically brown, sagebrush-covered slopes have transformed to verdant vineyards.
More than 90 percent of the vines on Red Mountain are planted to red wine grapes, and a number of those sites are dominated by cabernet sauvignon.
Here are several examples of red wines from Red Mountain, all of which won gold medals at this year’s Cascadia International Wine Competition. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Hightower Cellars 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $40: The affable husband-and-wife team of Tim and Kelly Hightower share the winemaking duties, and they blended fruit from their estate high on Red Mountain with E&E Shaw Vineyard near famed Ciel du Cheval for this cab. Notes of mint, spice and earth mix with blackberry, blueberry and black currant for a structure that’s juicy and capped by sophisticated tannins.
Obelisco Estate 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon BDX, Red Mountain, $50: This cab opens up with aromas of blackberry, dark cherry, eucalyptus and peach tea, with a bit of an earthy element reminiscent of raspberry bramble. The palate delivers a lush, full, and juicy dose of cassis and blackberry, while tannins work in the background alongside a pinch of pepper that settles in for the finish. It’s a lovely tribute to founder Doug Long, who passed away last fall after a battle with leukemia.
Radix Winery 2015 Laevus Syrah-Petite Sirah, Red Mountain, $55: Ohio-born endocrinologist Marco De Santis moved to Washington state and recruited winemaking talent Joshua Maloney to launch this young project that’s quickly merited acclaim. Their blend of syrah (69 percent) and petite sirah from Red Heaven Vineyard allows for the true to varietal elements of syrah to shine, with a supporting background of blackberry and raisin from the petite syrah. Notes of blueberry and clove allow for white pepper on the finish.
Upchurch Vineyard 2015 Counterpart Red Wine, Red Mountain, $50: The Upchurch family unveiled Counterpart as its expression of Right Bank Bordeaux-style blends, and acclaim has followed this debut blend of merlot (65 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (35 percent) from their Red Mountain estate, managed by the indefatigable Dick Boushey. A small portion of their plantings, which they established in 2008, is dedicated to merlot, making this a worthy snapshot of the variety’s performance across their 18 acres. Chris Upchurch’s graceful barrel program with entirely new French oak allows for flavors of dark cherry, nutmeg and toast with touches of lavender, bay leaf and orange oil. The closing rush of pomegranate and cherries keeps the focus on acidity rather than tannins.
Schooler Nolan Winery 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $25: Restaurateur JD Nolan spearheads this red wine project that pulls from throughout the Columbia Valley, but its focus for cab is Red Mountain. Prominent aromas of cherry and sage are joined by barrel influences that lend notes of vanilla and espresso. Gentle tannins work in the background of perfectly ripened fruit, delivering a crowd-pleaser that’s available at his Fat Olives near the Uptown in Richland.
Love That Red Winery 2014 Derby Day Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $36: Up-and-coming Woodinville vintner Terry Wells reaches into Quintessence and Red Heaven vineyards for this bright and fruit-forward cab. Cherry, bright raspberry and a touch of eucalyptus open on the nose, followed by a silky smooth blackberry flavor profile that comes with easy tannins.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.