OUR AVAS – Red Mountain

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Red Mountain: Washington’s Best

BY RONALD HOLDEN

red mountain avaThere’s no official ranking of vineyard quality in North America, but if there were, Red Mountain would surely be Washington’s very best vineyard site, what the French would call a Grand Cru. That said, it’s neither red nor mountain. Rather, as Paul Gregutt describes it in his encyclopedic Washington Wines and Wineries, it “rises like a brownish lump of unbaked bread” at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley.

What it has, like all great vineyard sites, is that elusive combination of location, topography, soil and exposure known as terroir. Beneath a layer of wind-blown topsoil lie strata of granite, rock, clay and minerals, sculpted by glacial floods and whipped by strong winds. Vines planted here struggle to produce; the grapes ripen at a smaller size, half what a berry would weigh in Napa, with intense mineral flavors. Cabernet sauvignon from Kiona, one of Red Mountain’s oldest vineyards, have won multiple Wine of the Year awards for Quilceda Creek, and Quilceda has responded by planting 17 acres of its own vines on Red Mountain’s slopes.

Grapes grown here are also higher in tannin than on neighboring sites, giving the cabernet sauvignon wines from Red Mountain more structure or “backbone,” as well as intense black fruit flavors and a “chewy” mouthfeel.

The undisputed king of this mountain is the Hedges Family Estate; Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges have even built a modern chateau on their property. Nearby is Col Solare, acreage that Italian wine superstar Pietro Antinori has bought in a joint venture with Chateau Ste. Michelle. The AVA’s pioneers, Kiona and Klipsun Vineyards, are in evidence, as are Grand Reve, Artz and Grand Ciel, along with half a dozen smaller wineries and grape-growing operations.

The biggest of the newcomers is a 400-acre development managed by Doug Long (of Obelisco Vineyards) and a group of investors. The reason for the increased interest: water rights. The Department of Natural Resources, which controls these state lands, sank several deep-water wells over the last five years, and is making the water available to grape growers on Red Mountain and the orchardists and farmers further up the valley.

Critic Stephen Tanzer wrote of Quilceda Creek’s “aromas of dark cherry, minerals, smoky oak and sweet butter, complicated by a musky, meaty quality.” The musky, meaty quality isn’t visible in the vineyards, of course, but they are words to remember while visiting. It’s called “tasting with your feet.”

Seattle writer Ronald Holden blogs at Cornichon.org. He is the author of Northwest Wine Country.

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