BY TAMARA BELGARD
PICTURE BREATHTAKING RIVER VALLEYS and rolling hillsides rich with ancient but fertile volcanic soil, the type of soil that results in wines of remarkable character and exceptional quality. There’s only a few places in the U.S. with soil like that, and one of them is Idaho.
Understandably, wine grapes probably aren’t your first thought when thinking about a state known for growing potatoes. However, in addition to lush, volcanic sediment that’s chock-full of minerals, Idaho enjoys temperate weather, abundant sunshine and plentiful water―all things perfect for vinifera. These high-desert vineyards off the beaten wine path are ideally situated, with cold winter dormancy and a long, warm growing season. The extreme diurnal temperatures (meaning warm days and cool nights) result in balanced wines that taste of the fruit they’re made from, while still retaining structure, sugars and acid. And maybe due in part to a Wild West attitude (cue tumbleweeds and the theme song to Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Idaho winemakers are still relatively unrestrained by convention, which allows them the freedom to experiment and define the unique styles of the region’s wines as expressions of the terroir.
Though the first Pacific Northwest vineyards were planted in the Clearwater Valley of Northern Idaho in 1864—when it was still the Old West and well before Prohibition took root— the state’s wine industry was slow to return after Prohibition. Oregon and Washington finally welcomed Idaho to the Northwest wine party in 2007, when the Snake River Valley became Idaho’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA). Now poised for significant growth, the state has more than 50 wineries and more than 8,000 acres planted with vinifera in three distinct AVAs (Snake River Valley, Eagle Foothills and Lewis Clark).
Since Idaho is considered something of a Johnny-come-lately on the wine scene, it can be compared to California 40 to 50 years ago, Oregon 30 to 40 years ago, and Washington 20 to 30 years ago. The beauty of being a relatively undiscovered wine destination means it’s still affordable and far less traveled than other more established territories. There’s no better time to experience wines that taste of the mystique and exquisite beauty that stem from the snowcapped mountains and crisp, clean rivers of the Idaho countryside.
5 Must-Visit Wineries on the Sunnyslope Wine Trail
Koenig Vineyards: With sweeping views of the scenic Snake River Valley, Koenig was founded in 1995 with a goal of discovering the best vineyard sites and practicing winegrowing methods that convey the remarkable terroir of this exciting new wine region. They focus on hand-crafting small lots of wine from the Sunnyslope Wine District that taste remarkably of the diverse landscapes and flavors of the region. koenigvineyards.com
Williamson Orchards & Vineyards: Conveniently located along the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, guests to Williamson can expect a welcoming atmosphere steeped in old-fashioned farm charm. Combining “new world” technology with “old world” tradition, Williamson grows eight grape varieties and produces 14 different labels of memorable and award-winning wines. willorch.com
Fujishin Family Cellars: Located in the heart of the Snake River Valley, Fujishin produces distinctive wines less commonly found in the area, varieties like petite sirah and mourvedre (often used as blending wines). From delicate whites, to full-bodied reds, Fujishin aims to accentuate the bright fruit and light, earthy character indicative of Idaho. ffcwine.com
Sawtooth Winery: Situated atop 500-plus acres of vineyards, with picturesque views of the Owyhee Mountains and Boise Valley, this is a perfect place to enjoy a picnic on the deck while sipping outstanding chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris, syrah, merlot, malbec or tempranillo. sawtoothwinery.com
Huston Vineyards: Small and family-run, Huston (near the historic town of the same name), grows and selects grapes from 30 to 40 small lots and hand-crafts their wines. In the tasting room on Chicken Dinner Road, enjoy reserve wines, wines from the SRV (Snake River Valley) series and their acclaimed “Chicken Dinner” red and white table wines.
For a complete list of wineries and a map of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail in Idaho’s Snake River Valley AVA, visit sunnyslopewinetrail.com.