|Melanie Krause, owner/winemaker, Cinder|
I love it when -- apparently every other year -- I get a box of Idaho wine samples. This year I tasted the two best wines I've ever had from Idaho. I also will recommend 8 of the 12 wines I tried, a higher percentage than ever, and on par with what I might recommend from a box of random wine samples from any region in California.
There is no "Idaho taste profile," just as there really isn't a Washington taste profile. Idaho was known for Riesling for a long time mainly because of its frost resistance. But when the vines can survive the winter, there's enough summer sun in the best-regarded Sunnyslope region (an unofficial subsection of the Snake River Valley AVA) to ripen red grapes.
Without further ado, here are the recommendations.
Cinder Small Lot Series Snake River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014 13.1% alcohol (price NA)
A former assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle, Melanie Krause is one of the best winemakers in Idaho. She's best-known for her Viognier. I'm regretful that I couldn't find this wine on sale online because I like it even better. It has great length: The initial sip is fruity but dry and it goes on and on. I get a burst of some exotic tropical fruit: something partly citrusy and partly custardy. The shimmering finale is so long it's not a finish so much as a continuation. There's no grassiness, which had to be a concern with an Idaho Sauvignon Blanc. One of the best wines I've ever had from Idaho, and I've had some good ones. Sorry to tantalize you with a wine you can't buy, but I want to reward excellence. 94
This wine is apparently a happy product of unpredictable nature, as winemaker/owner Greg Koenig discovered botrytis in one block of his Riesling and knew what to do with it. It's decadently rich, almost like an ice wine (the grapes were 40° brix at harvest; that's enough for ice wine in Canada). Beyond just sweetness, there are mango custard flavors and a pretty aroma of honeycomb and white flowers. This is dessert, not a wine that goes with dessert, as it's richer and sweeter than lemon meringue cake, but also more complex. I love lemon-meringue cake but I'd rather have this. 94 (Buy it here.)
Hat Ranch Snake River Valley estate grown Dry Moscato 2015 12.7% ($18)
Owner Tim Harless is a commercial airline pilot who chose to buy vineyards on Sunnyslope, the best-regarded area in Snake River Valley, when he decided to get into the wine industry. His first vintage was 2011 and apparently from the beginning he has preferred wines of nuance over power. This wine is exuberant: fruity and juicy, yet without the searing acidity you might fear from very cool-climate dry Muscat. It's delicious wine and easy to pair with strong-flavored foods; we had it with miso-grilled mackerel. 92 (Buy it here.)
Wine Press Northwest recently named this winery Idaho Winery of the Year. Owner/winemaker Neil Glancey, an Idaho native, did his training on the East Coast, an unusual choice. His background shows in this wine, which is very different from what you expect from a West Coast Cabernet Franc. It's light-colored like a Pinot Noir. The aroma is shy but on the palate it's pleasantly fruity yet dry, with Bing cherry flavors and smooth tannins. It's Beaujolais-like; it doesn't try to do too much and there's enough fruit to please fruit fans, but without the richness you associate with the West Coast. The more we had with dinner, the more we liked it. And that was before I saw the price: what a bargain. 90 (Buy it here.)
Huston Vineyards Snake River Valley Malbec 2014 13.9% ($29)
This is a nicely balanced fruit-driven wine, fresh and juicy. The aroma is inviting from the moment you nose it: just fresh berries and earth and some perfume. You really would have to be a sourpuss to dislike this wine; just tasting it put me in a good mood. 90 (Buy it here.)
Winemaker Martin Fujishin manages several vineyards and thus is able to buy grapes for his own label on the spot market, a solid strategy in a state where the wine industry is still in its growth stages. Moreover, he knows just how much he can pay: in 2012 he told me Idaho residents "won't pay $18 for white wine," so I guess he's pushing the envelope here. It's a strong wine with potent apple flavor and reminds me of strong cider, but that has its appeal. (Note for natural wine enthusiasts/haters: I use the cider analogy because apple is a naturally occuring flavor in Viognier; it's not cloudy, fizzy or faulty in any way.) We had this with a meal of leftover Chinese food and it was fine. 89 (Buy it here.)
Ste Chapelle Snake River Valley Petit Verdot 2012 14% ($22)
Ste Chappelle with its 150,000 case capacity has long been Idaho's largest winery, King Kong surrounded by spider monkeys, and because of that it has always had little treats studded in its portfolio of (too) many bottlings. I'm leaving up this review even though I couldn't find the wine online because they may still have some in the tasting room. It's an inky tooth-stainer of a wine, with juicy dark blackberry flavors and a slate note. This wine calls for a slab of grilled meat. 89
Indian Creek Snake River Valley White Riesling 2015 12.4% ($12)
This is the kind of wine Idaho used to be known for, if it was known at all, and for the price, it's good value. It's simple, fruity and a little sweet, but with the acid to carry it. If this were on the wine list in Alaska and I was on a kayaking visit, I'd be happy to pay restaurant markup for it. 88 (Buy it here.)