One of the first things you’re likely to hear or read about Washington state’s Red Mountain AVA is that it’s not really red or particularly mountainous. (It’s more of a lumpy brown hill at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley.)
But this lumpy hill, with its southwest-facing slope, has become one of Washington’s most prestigious growing areas for red wines. This is the Washington wine industry’s high-rent district, with grapes selling for about three times the state average. Although Rhone varieties make a strong appearance, Red Mountain is best known as cabernet sauvignon country.
The appellation is tiny: only about 4,000 acres, of which about 2,200 acres are currently planted. The terrain is such that only a few hundred more are considered plantable. Vineyard elevations range from 540 to 1,400 feet.
A combination of factors makes the area good for grapes, vintners say. The poor, well-drained soils stress the vines, creating concentration in the fruit. The intense sunlight (because of the northern latitude and lack of cloud cover) and warm summers make it possible to ripen just about any heat-loving grape variety, and cool nights help preserve acidity. (The diurnal temperature shift between day and night can be as much as 50 degrees.) The climate is extremely dry, with only 6 to 7 inches of rain a year, so irrigation is essential.
All this results in cabernets that are fully ripe with enough acidity to lend freshness. Many of the wines also have a savory note that recalls the native sagebrush that grows throughout the area.
All the factors that make eastern Washington a good place to grow grapes, says J.J. Williams, director of operations at Kiona Vineyards, are “supercharged or magnified on Red Mountain.”
The Williamses are Red Mountain pioneers. In 1975, J.J.’s grandfather, John Williams, and a fellow engineer, Jim Holmes, planted the first vineyard in what was to become the Red Mountain AVA. They planted riesling – the conventional wisdom at the time was that riesling and chardonnay were the best varieties in that latitude – and cabernet sauvignon. They planted the cab because they liked the variety, but it was considered “a big risk to plant cabernet,” J.J. says. But by 1982, he says, “people began to recognize the potential.”
Williams and Holmes eventually parted ways amicably, and the Holmes family now owns the well-known Ciel du Cheval vineyard. The Williamses expanded their vineyard holdings and now own several parcels, totaling about 270 acres. In addition to their own brand, they supply fruit to about 60 other Washington wineries.
As for Kiona’s own wines, there’s a big variety, including a savory, structured 2016 Estate Merlot ($25). The 2014 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), made from vines planted in 1975, is as good as any Red Mountain cab I tasted during a recent visit to the area: dark, dense and complex, with lively black fruit, hints of graphite and sagebrush, and firm but approachable tannins. There are also the more unusual offerings, like the 2016 Estate Lemberger ($17), a fresh, fruity red wine with good structure, and the delicious 2018 Chenin Blanc Ice Wine ($50/375 ml), a floral, sweet beauty with great acidity. (Williams notes that conditions are cold enough to allow them to make an ice wine almost every year.)
Ciel du Cheval vineyard is also a source for a number of well-known Washington wineries, and the Holmes family finally started their own small label, Côtes de Ciel, focused exclusively on that vineyard. The 2013 Côtes de Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) is very tight and structured, with black fruit and an anise note.
Hedges Family Estate, founded in 1987, was one of Red Mountain’s early wineries and a driving force behind the appellation’s federal recognition. Though the family makes a good syrah, Bordeaux red varieties are the focus. I tasted a nicely balanced 2016 La Haute Cuvée ($65) that will be available soon. It’s savory and structured, with red fruit, a sagebrush note and nice freshness. The 2016 Hedges Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is big but elegant, with red fruit, spice and firm tannins. A less expensive choice is the 2015 Estate Red Mountain ($28), a blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon that also contains grapes ranging from merlot and syrah to touriga nacional and tinta cao. It’s ripe and supple, with dark berry fruit and some spicy oak.
An important milestone for Red Mountain was the decision by Piero Antinori, one of Tuscany’s leading vintners, to team up with Washington giant Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1992 to establish the Col Solare estate. The 2016 Col Solare ($75), a cab-dominant wine with a little cabernet franc, is structured and savory, with ample ripe, dark fruit and some baking spice notes.
Another important Red Mountain player from outside the area is Duckhorn, which established Canvasback. Although 2016 is the current vintage for the Canvasback Cabernet Sauvignon ($42), you may still find the rich, structured 2015. The reserve-level 2016 Canvasback Grand Passage Cabernet Sauvignon ($84) is more concentrated and tightly wound.
And there’s the Aquilini family, based in Vancouver, Canada, which owns more than 600 acres on Red Mountain, making it the appellation’s biggest land owner. The family, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, will reportedly roll out its wines in the U.S. market next year.
A lot of Red Mountain grapes are shipped out of the area to wineries elsewhere in the state. For example, there’s the 2016 DeLille Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon ($68), which displays ripe yet lively black fruit and notes of anise and cedar, finishing with fine tannins. DeLille’s executive winemaker, Chris Upchurch, has his own vineyard in the Red Mountain appellation, from which he makes wines under the Upchurch label. The 2016 Upchurch Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) offers ample sweet fruit, a savory note of graphite and very firm tannins. Upchurch also has a more affordably priced brand, LTL; the 2016 LTL Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) is more immediately approachable, with fine tannins.
Other noteworthy wines I sampled include the 2016 The Walls “Curiositas” Cabernet Sauvignon ($56), a wine that’s big but not heavy, with lively black fruit, and the 2015 Hightower Cellars Red Mountain Reserve ($55), a cab-dominant wine with plump red fruit, baking spice and fine tannins.
But back to those Rhone grape varieties. At the top of Red Mountain, on land that had been thought to be unplantable, is a project called WeatherEye, devoted mostly to Rhone grapes. Vineyard manager Ryan Johnson, who worked at Ciel du Cheval and developed Force Majeur’s vineyard on Red Mountain, has a lot of experience in the area, but the conditions at WeatherEye are more extreme. He’s still not sure how much of the land is plantable, but when I visited in the spring, there were about 27 acres under vine, most planted in little “islands.” Johnson’s partner – and the guy with the money – is Cam Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive.
The native sagebrush was left in the high-density plantings, and lavender was added to the mix in an effort to replicate the garrigue, or aromatic wild plants, that are ubiquitous in much of southern France. There’s also a block of mourvèdre inspired by plantings in the Canary Islands, with little mounds that acts as wind breaks to protect the vines. Part of the project spills over onto the north-facing slope, outside the boundaries of the Red Mountain AVA.
Myhrvold has no plans to start a winery but hopes to sell his grapes to top-flight wineries. Avennia winery has created a project called Red Mountain Elevated, with wines based exclusively on WeatherEye fruit.
Update: After this article was published, the Red Mountain Elevated team announced a new name for the project, Liminal. The inaugural vintage, 2018, is focused on Rhone varieties and will be released in late 2020 or early 2021. Future vintages will include Bordeaux varieties. To register for the mailing list, click here.