BENTON CITY — Along the Yakima Valley’s eastern edge is a brown ridge that looks similar to those of the nearby Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Hills.
But this formation with its deep sandy soils is different. Red Mountain, despite being neither a mountain nor red, has turned into one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier wine regions.
Approved in 2001, Red Mountain is the smallest of Washington state’s 14 federally approved American Viticultural Areas. It’s also the most concentrated. At 4,040 acres, more than half is planted to grapes across 54 vineyard sites.
One area where Red Mountain is truly red is in grape varieties. Because of its location and ability to collect heat, red wine grapes grow particularly well here. In fact, cabernet sauvignon takes up nearly 60 percent of the planted acres on the ridge.
During the next four weeks, much of the Washington wine industry’s focus will be on Red Mountain.
The Auction of Washington Wines will stage its annual Vineyard Dinner on May 31 at Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain, with the 2019 Honorary Grower: Scott Williams of Kiona Vineyards. Then on June 1, the Auction’s Wine and Music Festival at Col Solare will showcase more than 20 wineries — many from Red Mountain — along with live music from Dakota Brown Band and Jack Rothwell. Proceeds from both weekend events will benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital, as well as viticulture and enology research at Washington State University.
On June 23, there will be a screening for “Red Mountain Revealed,” a documentary by Pixelsoft Films on Red Mountain grape growing pioneers Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval and John Williams of Kiona. Tickets are $45 per person for that evening of food, wine and cinema at Terra Blanca.
Earlier this spring, at the seventh annual Cascadia International Wine Competition, professional wine judges from up and down the West Coast judged 1,040 wines from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, awarding several gold medals to wines using Red Mountain grapes. Here are four of them. Ask your favorite wine merchant for these or order directly from the winery. See the entire list of medal winners at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.
Ambassador Wines of Washington 2016 Estate Grown Syrah, Red Mountain, $35: This vintage marks a winemaking switch to Mike Macmorran of Mark Ryan fame, and while these wines are produced in Walla Walla, the focus of the fruit remains on estate Red Mountain. Their source for syrah is the namesake 22-acre vineyard along Ambassador Road, and the influence of Bordeaux varieties malbec (8%), cabernet franc (8%) and petit verdot (3%) adds structure and style. Aromas of blueberry, raspberry and dried wild flowers drift up from the glass. Plush flavors of black cherry and blackberry, cacao and chai tea latte give the wine a comfortable feel.
Barons Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $45: Weyerhaeuser executive Jim Keller joined the Barons ownership team during this vintage, so this work by then-winemaker Matt Loso holds a special place in the cellar at this Walla Walla winery. Aromas of cassis, black plum and huckleberry lead to ripe flavors of dark fruit, pipe tobacco and cocoa powder, which fit the lithe and elegant structure that’s backed by superb length.
Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards 2016 Petite Sirah, Red Mountain $40: Lake Chelan winemaker Judy Phelps sources grapes from Red Mountain to craft this massive petite sirah. It opens with beautiful aromas of blackberry and blueberry jam that lead into flavors of black cherry, more blueberry and blackberry and a touch of black pepper. Its tannins are sturdy yet do not go overboard. While approachable now with a peppered marbled ribeye or ribs, it also will benefit with a few years in the cellar.
Upchurch Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain $75: Chris Upchurch and his wife, Thea, planted their vines along the southern edge of the AVA a decade ago, and this bottling is merely the latest gem from the founding winemaker at DeLille Cellars. Aromas load up your senses with pencil shavings, blackcurrant, Bing cherry and herbed grilled meat. A beautiful structure of ripe tannins fill the mouth and linger long into the finish that carries notes of chocolate-covered cherries, vanilla latte and a note of sweet incense. Because of the sweet rich fruit and well-textured tannins, the wine is ready to drink now but is woven enough to span 20 years.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.