Certain factors in viticulture produce intensely flavored grapes with balanced sugars and acids. And that can only happen in the vineyard.
Washington’s average sixteen hours per day of summer sunlight, cool nights, hills and slopes, rainfall or lack there of and alluvial soils produce some of the best growing conditions for vinifera grapes.
Each micro-climate, as if there could be micro in eastern Washington, has its own geology, soil, temperature fluctuations, water source and sunlight intensity. That’s what makes each American Viticultural Area (AVA) unique.
There are fourteen Washington State AVAs, defined by the United States Treasury Department’s Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau.
The first to be recognized was Yakima Valley in 1983. In 1984, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley joined the Club. Eleven years later, our very own unique Puget Sound joined the ranks.
The turn of the century brought Red Mountain into the fold, followed by Columbia Gorge (2004), Horse Heaven Hills (2005), Rattlesnake Hills and Wahluke Slope in 2006 and Snipes Mountain in 2009. Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes were added in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This year Lewis Clark Valley was added to the state’s AVAs – the first shared with Idaho.
Grapes were first planted in the Horse Heaven Hills by Don & Linda Mercer in 1972. Horse Heaven Hills or H3 as some refer to it, is around 570,000 acres of which about 10,130 acres are planted to grapes. Today, it represents 25% of Washington’s total grape production.
H3 rises up from 300 feet at the Columbia River to about 1,800 feet on the border of the Yakima Valley AVA. The AVA’s steep south facing slopes are perfect vineyard locations.
The well-drained, sandy soils and dry, windy conditions of the Horse Heaven Hills have stressed the vineyards just enough to produce those sought after intensely flavored grapes.
Older, established vineyards also have a reputation for intensely flavored grapes. In the Horse Heaven Hills AVA look for Alder Ridge, Andrews Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Champoux, Columbia Crest, Destiny Ridge, McKinley Springs, Mercer Canyon and Wallula Gap Vineyards.
Destiny Ridge, just 800 feet up from the Columbia River, is a pretty breezy place for grape vines; the winds that blow are what makes this part of the Horse Heaven Hills appellation distinct. The best part of the constant wind is the inhospitable habitat for vineyard disease and pests. And much like the mistral winds of southern France, the vines are stressed and would dry out were it not for drip irrigation.
Destiny Ridge Vineyard also benefits from its close proximity to the Columbia River. It’s rare to find temperature extremes close to a big body of water. Thanks to the modifying effects of the mighty Columbia rolling on (Woody Guthrie’s immortal words) and the land sloping toward the river which pushes cold air away from the vineyards. Further north away from the water, vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills have had killing frosts.
Overlooking the mighty Columbia River, is Alexandria Nicole Cellars. Owners Jarrod and Ali Boyle planted the first vines at Destiny Ridge in 1998 while Jarrod was working with Dr. Wade Wolfe at Hogue Cellars. The plan was to use the fruit from their Destiny Ridge Vineyard to produce small case lots for other wineries. And that worked for about six years until the vines came into full production with such fruit intensity, the seeds of another new winery were planted.
Alexandria Nicole Cellars’ (ANC ) first vintage from the 367-acre estate was in 2004. Ten years later, the 2014 Shepherds Mark, their signature white, is a blend of 60% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, and 20% Viognier. And it’s a medal winning wine with a Double Gold, three golds, Best of Class, 93 points and a Silver. This lovely wine is crisp with fresh floral notes and a rich mouthfeel of juicy Asian pear, citrus and crisp apple.
Why Shepherds Mark? Well, in the early 1900’s, sheepherders left their mark on the Horse Heaven Hills in the form of rock monuments. These monuments – some still stand along the ridge line of Destiny Ridge Estate Vineyard – were used for identification, way-finding, recreational pastime, artistic expression, or to simply leave one’s mark on the world.
Other ANC wines currently available are the medal winning 2012 Gravity Merlot which also received a Double Gold from the Seattle Wine Awards and 92 points from two industry magazines. The blend of 92% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, and 2% Carmenere was aged 22 months in new and 1 year-old French oak barrels.
The 2013 Jet Black Syrah is another medal winning wine with three golds, Best of Class, 92 points and a Best Buy. This 100% Syrah from blocks 1, 15, 17 and 43 was whole berry fermented and then aged in new and 1 year-old French oak barrels. Prepared to be awed!
If you would like to tour and taste the the wines and wineries of Horse Heaven Hills, mark your calendars for Saturday, July 16, 2016 to experience the Horse Heaven Hills Trail Drive. You’ll meet the growers and vintners behind some of Washington’s most highly rated wines.
During this is a self guided tour, you’ll visit with grape growers and winemakers, enjoy beautiful vistas and sample some excellent wines. There will be music and wine tasting at the BBQ at Crow Butte Park. This annual fundraiser raises money for scholarships in viticulture and oenology.