Idaho is a massive western state best known for potatoes, rugged peaks, and that blue college football field that waterfowl think is a lake.
Well, there’s much more to the Gem State, including a burgeoning wine scene focused just outside of Boise but stretching as far as Twin Falls. In and around Nampa, near the Oregon border, there’s a budding community of winemakers sourcing fruit from sprawling growing areas like the Snake River AVA. It’s a fun time for consumers, as Idaho vintners are still figuring out what works best — which grapes match the climate, which styles match the terroir, and which blends best reflect the unique landscape.
While wine grapes first took root in the area way back in the 1860s in Lewiston, it’s just recently that such rows have turned from novelty to industry. Presently, Idaho is home to some of the fastest growing wine regions in the country. There are now more than 60 producers within the state lines, pulling from some 1,300 planted acres. And, as is typically the case in the west, there’s ample real estate for much more.
With the Rocky Mountains looming large and creating conditions too harsh for most wine grapes, most of the farming occurs on the western side of the state. There are three major appellations, including the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA and Eagle Foothills AVA. The former is set to the north, in the scenic Palouse and sprawling foothills of the Clearwater Mountains. The latter is just north of Boise and a sub-region within the Snake River AVA (click here for a map via the Idaho Wine Commission).
The Snake River AVA is huge, spanning Idaho and Oregon and home to high-elevation continental terrain around 2,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level. It’s great for slow ripening but also prone to rugged weather and dramatic storms. Resident grapes have to show a little more in the way of mettle but locals would argue that that’s where the flavor resides. It’s a real frontier, still being settled in the name of viticulture.
What’s grown here? Quite a broad range of grapes, given the size of the regions and the agriculture-friendly summers. There’s the more predictable varieties, like Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. And there are also b-sides, like Zweigelt, Muscat Canelli, Lemberger, Semillon, and the reincarnated Merlot grape.
Here are some Idaho producers to look out for, whether you’re planning a future trip or looking to enjoy a delivery from this up-and-coming western wine state.
One of the state’s more avant-garde producers, Split Rail is responsible for some creative and captivating wine. From amphora orange wine made from Malvasia Bianca to Pét-Nat and Mourvèdre, the Garden City operation is tireless in its pursuit of out-of-the-ordinary offerings. The blends are delicious, the canned riffs are fantastic, and the mindset is admirable and one that will help mold the unique Idaho wine conversation.
Colter’s Creek launched in 2007 and has since focused on vineyards along the Clearwater and Potlach Rivers. An estate enterprise, the label works with its own pair of sites, along with other esteemed Idaho vineyards such as Williamson and Arnett. The blends really stand out, sunny mixes of Bordeaux and Spanish varieties. There’s also a tasty berry-and-pepper driven Syrah and a memorable Cab Franc.
One of Idaho’s originals, Sawtooth got its start back in the late 1980s. Look out for lively takes on Pinot Gris and Riesling as well as expressive Petite Syrah and Nebbiolo from gifted vintner Meredith Smith. Named after the dramatic mountain range in central Idaho, Sawtooth gets extra credit for honoring the outdoors-y spirit of its surroundings with a sweet fly-fishing theme.
Set in Caldwell, HAT Ranch began as an early 20th-century homestead. Today, it’s a winery known for its graceful takes on European varieties like Tempranillo and Sangiovese, as well as a refreshing family of Rosés. Look out for well-made whites, too, like Viognier and Gewurztraminer, along with evenly engineered blends.
Lewis-Clark Valley producer Clearwater Canyon started in 2004 and has since earned a strong reputation. Wines to try include a full but dry Chardonnay, a pleasant Albariño, and some steak-friendly Merlot. Winemaker Coco Umiker, who holds a doctorate earned from studying the complex world of wine microbiology, is as good as they come in terms of industry people to geek out with.
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