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Northwest Wine: Horse Heaven Hills is home to stellar wines

Spice Cabinet Vineyard, which overlooks the Columbia River and Crow Butte Park, is a showpiece site for the Mercer family. (Richard Duval)
Spice Cabinet Vineyard, which overlooks the Columbia River and Crow Butte Park, is a showpiece site for the Mercer family. (Richard Duval)
By Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

The Horse Heaven Hills is an acclaimed grape-growing region in Washington state that is not often visited by wine travelers because, despite its size, it offers few wineries.

It spans more than 570,000 acres, all of which are in the vast Columbia Valley. This area north of the Columbia River and primarily south of Yakima Valley has been well known for agriculture, particularly wheat, carrots, potatoes and other row crops. A recent purchase of 14,500 acres for $170 million by a Louisiana investor burnishes that reputation.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau established Horse Heaven Hills as an American Viticultural Area in 2005, but the region has a long history of grape growing. The first vineyard was planted in 1972 as Mercer Ranch Vineyards. Now, it is known as Champoux Vineyards.

Today, more than 15,000 acres of wine grapes are planted in Horse Heaven Hills, with more than 11,000 devoted to red grapes. During Washington’s recent boost in grape production, most of the growth has come from this region, which now accounts for 26% of the state’s vineyard acreage.

For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the Best of Show wine at this year’s Cascadia International Wine Competition came from Horse Heaven Hills: Coyote Canyon Winery’s 2015 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Estate Sangiovese.

At the seventh-annual Cascadia this spring, 22 judges evaluated more than 1,000 wines from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. They awarded 40 of those wines a double gold medal.

Here are four double gold wines from Cascadia that used grapes from Horse Heaven Hills. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant, or order directly from the winery. See the entire list of medal winners at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

An ideal way to experience and taste the region is by attending the 14th annual Horse Heaven Hills Trail Drive on July 20. This scholarship fundraiser and barbecue features tastings at six Horse Heaven Hills locations. More information: HorseHeavenHillsWineGrowers.org.

Mercer Estates 2017 Georgetown White Blend, Horse Heaven Hills, $18: The historic Mercer family built in flexibility in the future with this proprietary white blend they named for their young tasting room in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, but sauvignon blanc (80%) dominates winemaker Jeremy Santo’s delicious blend with viognier (20%).

True to its main component, it has honeysuckle and lime notes in its nose, then gooseberry and lime flavors, finishing with minerality. It’s a bright and versatile wine that screams for oysters on the half shell, scallops, crab cakes, clams and summertime salads.

Westport Winery Garden Resort 2016 Charterboat Chick, Horse Heaven Hills, $29: The Roberts family near Grays Harbor labels its cabernet sauvignon as Charterboat Chick in a tribute to matriarch Kim Roberts’ summers working in the fishing industry to pay for her schooling at Washington State University.

This latest release continues its tradition of medal winners. The May family’s remarkable Discovery Vineyard fruit helps make for a drink that’s laden with dark cherry, blackberry and blueberry aromas and flavors augmented by a dollop of dark chocolate and finish of smooth tannins.

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2017 Phinny Hill Vineyard Carménère, Horse Heaven Hills, $32: Dick Beightol and his family tend the vines that produce some of the Northwest’s top examples of carménère – a historically obscure red bordeaux variety – vintage after vintage. The nose brings hints of floral, spice and earth, backed by a full, smooth and rounded mouth feel that gives the wine an elegant balance.

Sipping this wine brings to mind sitting around a campfire in the dusk, grilling spicy sausages, making s’mores and enjoying the lingering scent of wild violets and lilac warmed by the day’s heat. There also are cherry and other dark fruits that form the core of flavor. A slight grip from the textured tannins gives a pleasing finish.

Maryhill Winery 2016 McKinley Springs Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, $46: Richard Batchelor, recently named Winemaker of the Year at the 2019 Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue University, seems to have a Midas touch with his wines. It all starts with the fruit, and the Rowell and Andrews families have transformed McKinley Springs into one of the Washington wine industry’s most important plantings.

This cab was aged in 61% new French oak barrels, which contributes to the nose of dark cherry, blackcurrant, blackberry and chocolate mint. Flavors of blackberry compote, cassis, a touch of oak toast and nicely integrated soft tannins make for a rich midpalate that finishes with chocolate and more blackberry.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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