Food & Drink

Peak wines from Washington’s Red Mountain

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

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.

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 Vineyard, the first on Red Mountain, in 1975. 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 like Andrew Will, Cadence, Seven Hills and Tamarack.) Another important step for the area 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 Col Solare. Al though early vintages 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, 2009 ($75), is aBordeaux-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.

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), acab-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.

I haven’t had the chance to taste many wines from Kiona, 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.