Chronological / Destinations / Idaho / IFWTWA Trips / United States / Wines & Spirits

Of Vines and Varietals: Idaho’s Secret Wine Story

Casks of wine age with time at 44th Street Wineries

Casks of wine age with time at 44th Street Wineries

Bottles of Pinot Gris at Sawtooth Estate Winery

Bottles of Pinot Gris at Sawtooth Estate Winery

Some states get all the luck. Georgia, synonymous with peaches, isn’t the largest producer of the fuzzy fruit; neighboring South Carolina actually produces more. But somehow, over time, Georgia cornered the market on the crop, insisting their peaches were juicier, meatier and sweeter than any other yield, giving rise to the tagline “Sweet as a Georgia peach.” South Carolina’s peach fame was thereby diminished, and the rest is erroneous history.

Similarly, Idaho’s grapes stand in the shadows of Washington’s and Oregon’s vines. Washington is recognized as the leader of the Pacific Northwest’s wine industry, but the first wine grapes, called Vinifera grapes, were actually planted first in Idaho in the spring of 1864, long before any grapes were introduced to Washington or Oregon.

The story of Idaho wines began in a small vineyard in Lewiston in north central Idaho, where cuttings of a woody plant called Royal Muscadine were planted. Much to everyone’s surprise, the cuttings survived the harsh winter and thrived, producing a succulent crop of musky grapes ideal for making the perfect wine. (Vinefera thrive during the colder months to go dormant, stave off bugs and disease, and conserve needed carbohydrates.)

Grapes were then introduced into the Clearwater Valley region in 1872, and the region soon made a name for itself, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Frenchmen Louis Desol and Robert Schleicher and German immigrant Jacob Schaefer, winning awards for their wines at expos across the country.

The Ste. Chapelle Winery sits atop Winery Hill

The Ste. Chapelle Winery sits atop Winery Hill

Then, the wrath of Prohibition hit. Vineyards dried up, vintners scrambled for work, and the lucrative business of growing and producing fine Idaho wines went dormant for decades.  It wasn’t until 1970 that grapes were reintroduced in Idaho, this time in the high desert climate of Idaho’s scenic Snake River Valley region in the southern part of the state, nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Snake River.

The sandy, well-drained volcanic soil, limited precipitation and natural temperature variations from day to night during the peak of grape growing season—long hot days, followed by cool summer nights—make this area the perfect location for growing and harvesting grapes rich in concentrated fruit flavors with naturally high acidity. Approved in 2007, the Valley became Idaho’s first designated American Viticultural Area, or AVA, helping to propel its wines to the world stage.

In the long run, the grapes of Prohibition’s wrath were a boon for Idaho’s economy. Its wine trade now contributes millions of dollars each year toward the financial health of The Gem State; in 2012, grapes added $73 million toward industrial commerce with no signs of slowing down.

Today, there are 1,600 acres of vineyards in the state and 50 wineries in the region, with more than 32 wineries within 32 miles of the state’s capital, Boise. Snake River Valley has quickly become a competitor against the more well-known vineyards of Washington, Oregon and California’s Napa Valley in terms of vintners, varietals, and wine tourism in particular.

Tourists are drawn to the area, not only for the seeming novelty of wineries in Idaho but for the class varietals that are produced, such as the established Syrah and Viognier. Other popular varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Merlot. There are even ice wines, where grapes are harvested during the bitter months of winter when the fruit is completely frozen, producing only the sweetest juice from the fruit.

The rolling hills of Bitner Vineyards

The rolling hills of Bitner Vineyards

Idahoan wineries are as select and varied as the pours they produce. Some of the more notable wineries in the area include the 44th Street Wineries in Garden City, a collective that is home to Cinder Winery, Telaya Wine Company, Périple Wines and Coiled Wines. The tasting area pours crisp Viognier, earthy Syrah and rich Cabernet Sauvignon. The family-owned Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell is known for their outstanding Reisling and Chardonnay. Sip a glass on the deck out back while taking in the panoramic views of the vineyard’s rolling hills.

Koenig Vineyards of Caldwell is synonymous with fine handcrafted wines, ice wines and European brandies, as well as distilled Idaho potato vodka. Sawtooth Estate Winery, nestled between 500 acres of vineyards at the foot of the Owyhee Mountains in Nampa, makes it the perfect venue for a wedding or special event. Sawtooth is known for quality crafted wines including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The Ste. Chapelle Winery sits atop Winery Hill in Caldwell and harvests its award-winning wines from the surrounding Snake River Valley AVA; try their Chateau Series Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Series Huckleberry in the impressive tasting room, built to inspire the famed Ste. Chapelle medieval Gothic chapel in France.

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