Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Idaho’s brand of wine-making

With some 18 wineries in Idaho, the gem state is considered part of the new frontier of wine-growing areas in the US.

From a purely geographical standpoint, Idaho vintners it offers ideal growing conditions because wine grapes actually thrive in this distinctly four-season climate. The region's fairly long growing season includes an extended fall that lets grapes ripen slowly for a more intense concentration of varietal characteristics. And, the Snake River not only provides a valuable water source, it also tempers the hostile desert -- drawing cold air away from the vineyards and thus creating its own microclimate.

Jenny and I recently took a Saturday drive through the wine country just outside Boise.

We visited and toured Ste. Chapelle Winery, the largest and perhaps best known. Named for the 13th-century Paris chapel built by Louis IX, the twenty-year-old winery rests on Winery Hill in the rich agricultural area known as Sunny Slope, in Caldwell. Grapes grown on Ste. Chapelle's 209-acre vineyard include Johannisberg riesling (the largest of the winery's plantings), chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, merlot and most recently, syrah. While the majority of Ste. Chapelle's 175,000 cases are sold in the Pacific Northwest, the winery distributes in 35 states, Canada, Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden. All wines are made on the premises, and many have won coveted national and international awards —such as the 1998 Johannisberg Riesling Special Harvest and the 1999 Collectors' Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

We also enjoyed tastings and conversation at Bill Stowe's Indian Creek Winery. In contrast, it’s very much a family operation; we talked with the owner’s daughter and label designer, Tammy. They are producing pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and occasional Gewürztraminer and ice wines. Well-respected among industry peers, Stowe is a retired Air Force major whose interest in wine was fostered during the time he spent stationed in Germany near the French border during the 1960s. He brings to his growing enterprise a chemistry degree, a master's in business, and a wine education from the highly regarded University of California-Davis. Since Indian Creek's opening in 1987, its wines have enjoyed increasing popularity, and the winery has many national and international awards, including "Best Red" at the San Diego National Wine Competition for the 1988 Pinot Noir and gold and silver medals at the 1996 World Wine Championships for its 1994 White Riesling and its 1995 White Pinot Noir (a popular pink varietal born of the winery's one-time surplus of the red grape).

With just over a million residents in the entire state (and about half of the population being Mormon), Idaho wineries are continuing to look elsewhere for commercial success. They also want to improve their brand naming, label design, marketing, and word-of-mouth advertising. What’s more, today the number of acres planted with Vinifera totals a mere 750 -- the potential is nearly 50,000 acres.

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