Washington's Red Mountain appellation is the state's smallest, and its viticultural history spans only about 40 years. But its triangular, southwest-facing slope has become what is widely regarded as Washington's most prestigious growing area for red wines.
Red Mountain isn't really a mountain, nor is it particularly red. It's more of a brownish hill at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley appellation. It doesn't really look like much: dry and dusty, with scrubby vegetation punctuated by the green of vineyards. But the grapes that grow there are especially prized and expensive, because they produce wines that are powerful and concentrated but also lively, savory and balanced.
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, 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 climate is extremely dry, with only 6 to 7 inches of rain a year, so irrigation is essential.
The appellation, which gained federal recognition in 2001, encompasses about 4,000 acres, of which about 2,500 are suitable for planting. About 1,400 acres currently are planted, and an estimated 70 percent of the vines are cabernet sauvignon.
Jim Holmes and then-partner John Williams planted Kiona Vineyards, the first on Red Mountain, in 1975. There was little farming in the area before then, Holmes says, because of the lack of water. They went on to take over another early vineyard, Ciel du Cheval, before splitting their business, with Williams taking Kiona and Holmes controlling Ciel du Cheval. (Ciel du Cheval grapes show up in a number of impressive Red Mountain wines from producers such as Andrew Will, Cadence, Seven Hills and Tamarack.)
Another important step for the area was the decision by Marchesi Piero Antinori, one of Tuscany's leading vintners, to team up with Washington giant Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1992 to establish an estate on Red Mountain, Col Solare. Although early vintages of Col Solare carried a Columbia Valley appellation, a 28-acre estate vineyard was planted, and the 2011 vintage will contain mostly estate fruit. The current Col Solare vintage, 2009 ($75), is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon; about 40 percent of the fruit is from Red Mountain. The wine is quite powerful, with sweet red and black fruit, hints of anise and dark chocolate and firm tannins.
The area has attracted other big players, too. Napa Valley-based Duckhorn will release a $40 Red Mountain cabernet this fall called Canvasback. The company bought 20 acres in 2013 and planted a vineyard in June; the first vintages are being made from purchased grapes. And the Aquilini Investment Group, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, and owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, has purchased about 500 acres in the appellation. Its plans are pending.
But there are also smaller players. One is Cadence, which has a 10-acre vineyard on Red Mountain. That's the source for the 2010 Cadence Camerata ($60), a cab-dominant blend that's ripe and lush yet savory, with plump black fruit, a hint of anise and firm tannins. The 2010 Cadence Ciel du Cheval ($45), a blend of mostly cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, is also from Red Mountain; the wine offers red fruit with savory notes of cedar and sagebrush and medium tannins.
Hedges Family Estate, founded in 1987, was one of Red Mountain's early wineries and a driving force behind the appellation's federal recognition. The vineyard provides most of the grapes for the Hedges wines, like the 2011 Hedges Family Red Mountain ($27), a blend dominated by cabernet and merlot that displays rich dark fruit, nice freshness, some oak spice and fine tannins, and the 2011 Hedges Family Estate "Descendants Liegeois Dupont" Syrah ($27), with its roasted berry aromas and flavors of bright berry, hard spices and medium tannins.
I haven't had the chance to taste many wines from the pioneering Kiona Vineyards, but an unusual one that I really enjoyed was the 2011 Kiona Lemberger (a bargain at $15), which is exuberantly fruity, with spicy, bright berry fruit and firm structure.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.
I recently tasted a sampling of Bordeaux-style red wines from Ciel du Cheval, one of Red Mountain's better-known vineyards. Two standouts were the 2010 Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval ($57), a blend of merlot and cabernet franc that offers robust red fruit with hints of cedar and tobacco and firm structure, and the 2009 Tamarack Cellars Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Reserve ($50), which has ample plump black fruit, some spicy notes and firm tannins. The latter wine is half cabernet sauvignon and one-quarter each merlot and cabernet franc.
DeLille Cellars is based outside Seattle and makes wines from a number of Washington appellations. The winery has a vineyard on Red Mountain called the Grand Ciel Estate Vineyard, and it's the source for a cabernet that's one of DeLille's top wines. The 2010 DeLille Cellars "Grand Ciel" Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), is a big, rich, dark wine, with ripe black fruit, hard spices, a touch of earthiness and fine tannins.
Terra Blanca is a 300-acre estate (about 90 acres are planted) in the southwest corner of Red Mountain. Its 2009 Terra Blanca "Batholith" ($40), a blend of mostly merlot and cab, is brimming with lively red and black fruit, a hint of anise and firm tannins.
Mark Ryan Winery is in a warehouse district in Woodinville, near Seattle, but the top wines come from Red Mountain. One of them is the 2011 Mark Ryan "Long Haul" ($48), a blend of merlot and cab franc that's lively and structured, with sweet red and black fruit and some floral notes.
Klipsun Vineyard is another well-known vineyard on Red Mountain, and it's the grape source for the 2010 Efeste "Upright" Merlot ($39), which is concentrated and still very tight, with dark fruit and a hint of anise. It should reward some aging.
Red Mountain is known for its reds, but there are some attractive whites, such as the 2013 JM Cellars Klipsun Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25), which is fresh and crisp, with citrus and peach flavors with some floral notes.