Monday, December 29, 2014

All Horses Go to Heaven...The Horse Heaven Hills AVA

the view from Coyote Canyon Vineyards
Whenever I'm out in the Yakima Valley I always look to the south side of the river along highway 82 at those beautiful rolling hills and think, "those are the Horse Heaven Hills." And sometimes I even say it out loud, if someone is with me in the car. I suppose it makes me feel smart or informed, but in reality, while that is technically correct, that's really just the tip of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and nowhere near where all the big work in the growing region is being done.

To get to the Horse Heaven Hills, really get there, you gotta go up over those pretty hills just behind Prosser and then drive for sometime. You'll pass some conventional farmland and then eventually you'll come to the Columbia River. This is important because as you note along your drive, much of the Horse Heaven Hills is arid, high desert. It's the Columbia River's moderating influence that even makes quality wine grape growing something you can consider out here.

It's a confluence of conditions, the Columbia, the canyons that run up from the river into the plateau above and the dry, sandy soil. In 1972 Walter Clore approached Don and Linda Mercer and convinced them to take a chance on wine grapes. Their family had been farming the Horse Heaven Hills since the 1930s growing a cornucopia of crops, wheat, onions and carrots, to name a few. The Cabernet they planted in 1972 has gone onto 100 point greatness in what is now known as Champoux Vineyard as an important part of the Quilceda Creek reputation.
Mercer Estates Spice Cabinet Vineyard
Horse Heaven Hills has certainly grown since then, McKinley Springs planted in 1980, and in 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle planted what has become one of the AVA's most signature sites in their Canoe Ridge Vineyard. The AVA has really grown up, it's total acreage is 570,000 so it's an expansive region with only about 12,000 acres planted to vineyards. I say only but the HHH AVA comprises 25% of Washington's total wine acreage.

The wines from the area have developed a style certainly that has become a signature of the AVA, Raymon McKee the winemaker for Chateau Ste Michelle's Canoe Ridge finds the signature to be "an expression of the soil, particularly in the tannin." The tannins tend to be the most notable, they bring a real sense of elegance, and add a dusty or powdery backbone to the wine. The palates are marked with redder fruits like cranberries, or red cherry. As warm as the area is, there's definitely a structure to the wines that leans more towards Old World wines like those from Bordeaux than you'd expect.

The region is in good hands and its reputation only continues to grow as it benefits from seeing how its older vines produce outstanding fruit. The pioneering vision of the Mercer family, the talents of someone like Paul Champoux and reach of Chateau Ste Michelle, along with the fine wines the region has gone on to produce will make it a region, that while perhaps a bit out of the way, is deserving a noteworthy stake on any map of the American wine landscape.

2013 Mercer Estates Reserve Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills While the Horse Heaven Hills seem heaven sent for Cabernet; Chardonnay from the region can be outstanding. The Mercers are the original wine growers in the HHH,but they haven't rested on their laurels and continue to push the region forward as both growers and a winery. Jessica Munnell shows a skill set where Chardonnay is concerned with this wine, it's opulent and oaky without being buttery and boring. Aromatically rich with hazelnut, toasted bread and baked apple, the wine carries through on the strength of it's fruit and acidity. The palate is rich, balanced and ripe. $32

2012 Columbia Crest Reserve Chardonnay Horse Heaven Hills Columbia Crest has over 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and with their H3 line has showed an incredible commitment to the AVA. That line of wines represents one of the state's best values year to year and in the sub $20 price point is a go to Tuesday night wine for many serious wine aficionados as the quality is just so high. This Chardonnay is another case maker for the wine in the HHH. Aromatically round and ripe with notes of vanilla, nutmeg and ripe pear the palate shows a vibrancy that is too often lacking in American oaked Chardonnay along with rounded fruit flavors of pear and creme brulee. $20

2010 Double Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet is king of course, and that holds true here in the Horse Heaven Hills, whether it's Champoux Vineyards or just across the street at Phinny Hill it's Cabernet that made this region famous. The Double Canyon Vineyards are just north of the Champoux Vineyards at a total of 88 acres and the connection to Phinny Hill is not just as neighbors. (Family is a thing that you hear time and again here in the Horse Heaven Hills and so Will Beightol son of Phinny Hill's Dick Beightol is managing the vineyards for this label with Napa and Willamette Valley roots.) The quality is present from the start with the fine tannin and superb structure that the more you familiarize yourself with it, you come to expect from HHH Cabernet. Aromatics of anise, black tea and dust, the wine is offers depth, and a elegant structure along with a present acidity. Flavors of mocha, red fruits and barrel spice. $40

2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc, Horse Heaven Hills While Cabernet and Chardonnay show so well from the HHH this wine is ridiculously good each year. Stainless and a heaping dollop of acidity make this vibrant white from one of the states warmest growing regions pulsate with citrus and stone fruit aromatics. The palate is cut fresh fruit and wet stone. For the price one of the state's best white wines year in and year out. $18

2010 McKinley Springs Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills There are many different varieties planted in the region and Malbec is one you're really seeing distinguish itself. This wine is elegant and while it offers plenty of blue and black fruits it is structured (again those dusty tannins) and very lively. (I tasted it beside a well regarded Argentinian Malbec which frankly seemed down right dumb in comparison) This wine shows aromatics, acidity, earth, spice and stony minerality along with it's dark fruits. $24

2012 Columbia Crest Reserve Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills This Malbec is a part of the limited release wines from Columbia Crest and the wines are made with an incredible amount of care. An inky black wine to behold as well as on the palate. Black fruits, smoke, earth and clove spices. Fantastically structured, with a core of black fruit. $45


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