« Back to News & Features Top

Feature Story

The Race to Red Mountain: Columbia Valley’s Cabernet Hill

by Patrick J. Comiskey  patcisco • posted on September 3, 2015

There’s no question that Washington’s hottest AVA—as in degree days—is also its hottest—as in fastest growing. That’s Red Mountain, a 4,040-acre speck within the vast, 11-million-acre Columbia Valley AVA. Jim Holmes and John Williams planted what’s now known as Ciel du Cheval Vineyard back in 1975, followed by Klipsun, planted by David and Patricia Gelles in 1984. But in the last decade, vine rows have overrun this once barren, gently convex slope bordering the Yakima River: Land under vine now stands at about 1,500 acres, and is likely to exceed 2,500 by next year—nearly all of it red, nearly all of it Bordelais varieties—inviting inevitable if misguided claims that the region is shaping up to be “Washington’s Napa Valley.”

Topping out at 1,400 feet in elevation, Red Mountain is hardly even a hill; it’s a relatively featureless geological formation called an anticline plain, sloping south by southwest. It receives just five inches of rain a year, supplemented mightily by the Kennewick Irrigation District—without which none of this growth would be possible. The southwest orientation provides a potent combination of heat units and solar radiation. That warmth, coupled with high pH, low-vigor soils of windblown and slackwater deposits over basalt, and an especially high calcium content, has resulted in a uniquely supercharged environment for growing powerful, dark fruit with inimitable concentration and a massive payload of tannins.

Red Mountain’s distinctiveness was detected early: In the 1980s, growers like Rob Griffin, then of Kiona, noted a ripeness level here that other vineyards in Washington State weren’t yet achieving. “In the early days, most fruit in the state still came in pretty light and herbaceous,” he recalls. “But Red Mountain fruit always had more color, more directed flavor, more depth.”

“Red Mountain fruit always had more color, more directed flavor, more depth.” —Rob Griffin
At a recent tasting in W&S’s San Francisco offices, Steven Sherman of William Cross Wine Merchants and Rob Renteria of La Folie joined senior editor Luke Sykora and me to see which wines in this burgeoning appellation we might call classic representations of the place.

As we nosed through the wines, a through-line was immediately apparent. “To me, the wines all have a pronounced licorice, fennel character,” said Renteria. Sherman agreed, adding that, to him, the wines often have an iodide scent, suggesting raw meat. “But on top of that there’s a floral component, a violet, almost sage-y note.” As for flavors, the panelists noted certain similarities, all within a very dark, light-bending fruit spectrum: black currant and black cherry, with a deep, saturated concentration. It was in the textures, however, that the wines really seemed to share a common thread. “They all have a lot of tannin, but for me the tannins are very fine, very gravelly,” said Renteria. “Sandy almost, with a lovely juicy, acidic character propping that up. They’re young, and very short right now. You can really feel the mineral character; it’s like a kind of compactness.” That word, ‘compactness,’ proved to be a useful distinguishing characteristic. All the wines to one degree or another possessed it. And, I pointed out, that character distinguished these wines from other Washington cabernet-based wines, not to mention regions south: Outside of certain mountain appellations, ‘compact’ was not a word you’d normally hear to describe a Napa Valley wine.

“Yes, but that comparison to Napa is made because of fruit ripeness,” said Sykora. “These wines make me think about Napa because the ripeness here isn’t like anyplace else in Washington State.” He added, “But the fruit tone isn’t the same. The tannins come through very differently.”

That firm, youthful texture had Renteria going in a different direction altogether. “I don’t know—is it closer to Napa or closer to Bordeaux? Or is it somewhere in between? There’s something about how the acid structure works with the tannins—I’ve always thought that Washington wines walk that line a bit.”

Can You Taste It?

The wines were revealed, and one thing stood out: across the wines, the varietal composition varied dramatically. Rob Renteria harkened back to the connection he’d made to Bordeaux. “It’s blender’s choice up there,” he said. “They’re almost like château wines: This is our house; we’re going to make the best wine we can in this style.” And yet they were all Red Mountain wines through and through. To our tasters, this indicated a balanced interplay between house style and terroir—the kind of dialogue that can create multiple, equally valid classics.

2011 Cadence Bel Canto
Ben Smith loves cabernet franc from Red Mountain; this wine, from his own vineyard, Cara Mia, contains 84 percent, with the balance merlot and petit verdot. Savory and dark fruited, with a firm but deft tannic structure, it was a quiet wine from a cool vintage in a warm place. While it lacked the power of the 2012s, it undeniably showed classic Red Mountain characteristics.

2012 Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
This was the only 2012 that wasn’t cabernet-dominant—a blend of 50 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet franc and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. It’s idiosyncratic for a region built on power chords, and winemaker Chris Camarda’s allegiance to merlot may account for this wine’s translucent quality and more subtle frame. There’s earth and fruit, a dark cherry scent and notes of graphite and iodide, the tannins graceful but still posessing that characteristic Red Mountain muscle.

In the end, it may have been the wine that fit our definition of ‘classic’ best, a wine that was, to Luke Sykora, “stylistically balanced,” with enough pliability within its formidable structure to serve as a lens through which we could see this anomalous place, once featureless, now as distinctive as any region in Washington State.

2012 Col Solare Red Wine
Col Solare, a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Antinori family, is made at a grand Italianate facility near the top of Red Mountain. Reliant mostly on cabernet (85 percent of the blend), it felt both iconic and stylized, the wine that most reflected a winemaker’s hand. Oak played a more prominent role, bringing a rich polish to the tannins. Yet, beyond the winemaking, its ripe, plush fruit had depth and stature, and the weight and structure felt very Red Mountain. It showed how a Red Mountain wine could be crafted.

2012 DeLille Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon
This was the only 100 percent cabernet in our tasting, from four Red Mountain vineyards, Grand Ciel, Upchurch, Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. And, no surprise, it was the powerhouse in the flight, a dark, intense, heady wine, lifted by scents of tobacco and dried herbs, with plenty of new oak. Amid the mass of dark fruit, a gravelly structure grounded the wine without bringing it to a halt. As with the Col Solare, the way the oak tannins framed the structure seemed relatively natural, not pushed, despite its youth. “It might be the nature of fruit itself here,” Sykora pointed out. “Perhaps fruit and oak integrate more quickly than what’s usually achieved in California.”

2012 Hedges Family Estate Red Wine
2012 Kiona Vineyards Reserve

The Hedges Family Estate and the Kiona Reserve represented two very traditional Red Mountain wineries, longstanding and stylistically unwavering. Kiona was the first winery on the Mountain; Hedges was established early on as well.

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot made up 86 percent of the Hedges, which aged for 11 months in a mix of American, French and Hungarian oak (30 percent new). Firmly structured, it delivered a black-fruited wallop of flavor, as well as a region-specific complement of grippy tannins; the structure felt bare boned and lasting.

The Kiona possessed the same percentage of cabernet sauvignon (60 percent), with 15 percent merlot and the balance malbec, petit verdot and cab franc, mostly from their younger estate parcel, Heart of the Hill. Here was a wine of exceptionally heady aromatics, with fruit reminiscent of sun-warmed blackberries. There was a wind-whipped astringency to the tannins coupled with an ashy, structural density that, to our panelists, was very much in keeping with the regional character.

Both felt like tough, stalwart evocations of Red Mountain: classical in the sense of showing the region’s raw, unpolished muscularity.

This story was featured in W&S Fall 2015.
illustration by Michael Hirshon