…you have never heard of Red Mountain. Why? Well, it is a fairly small appellation (4,000 total acres, which is 1/10 the size of Napa) and it is nested within the Yakima Valley AVA (600,000 acres), which, in turn, is part of the huge Columbia Valley AVA (11 million acres).
Red Mountain, though, produces arguably the best wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon in the entire state. Why? Well, last summer I spent some time in the AVA and according to Brian Rudin, winemaker at Canvassback (the Red Mountain winery owned by Duckhorn of Napa Valley), there are five pillars to describe what makes Red Mountain different.
The Five Pillars of Red Mountain
- Southwest facing aspect. As one might expect in Washington, winter comes on quickly starting with a chilly fall, but the aspect allows grapes to soak up maximum sunshine with dry and sunny but cooler days with highs in the 70s. This allows for a longer growing season and a slower maturity.
- The heat. The mountain creates a natural amphitheater that acts as a solar panel, making it the warmest AVA in the state. This causes the vines to produce grapes with thicker skins to protect against the heat, and almost all of the phenolics, flavors, and tannins in red wine come from the skins.
- It’s dry. It’s a dessert. No trees. No rain. While most people’s image of Washington is rainy Seattle, Red Mountain is actually three times drier than Phoenix with parts of the appellation getting only 3-5 inches of rain for the year. All vines are therefore irrigated with water coming from the nearby Yakima River, which provides very good, clean, almost limitless (but also very expensive) water. The dry climate, though, means Red Mountain growers are free from many pressures that affect other less-dry climates (e.g., powdery mildew).
- Exceedingly well-drained soils. There is a good diversity of soils on Red Mountain, but they all share two qualities: dry and loose. There is plenty of sand as well so phylloxera is not an issue (the vine-destroying louse does not like sandy soils) and most vines are own rooted (not grafted on to different rootstocks as they are almost everywhere else in the world).
- Wind. Even a slight breeze helps keep pests away and there is a steady wind on Red Mountain that never really becomes violent. The wind also helps with the thickening of the grape skins, making tannin management the most challenging part of a winemaker’s job here. The wind increases as it moves down in the valley which creates more tannic wines.
After visiting the vineyard, we proceeded to Hedges Family Estate for a tasting of eight different wines which would help illustrate Red Mountain’s sense of place.
2014 Muret Gaston Klipsum Merlot, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $50. 100% Merlot. A bit dusty and dark fruit. Good fruit on the palate, this is a big wine. Plenty of color, layers of tannin. A real cab drinkers merlot. It still needs some time, but whoa. Excellent. 92-94 Points.
2015 Col Solare Component Collection Syrah, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $85. 98% Syrah, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mineral and spicy. Jammy fruit. Great balance with subtle fruit and near-perfect acidity. The spice is basically silent until the finish when it comes roaring in. Excellent. 91-93 Points.
2016 Hedges Family Estate Syrah, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $30. 100% Syrah. Biodynamic. Spicy and purple fruit. Tablas Creek clone. “With biodynamic wines, you have to be OK with not being in control” according to winemaker Sarah Hedges. Light fruit but really great tartness. Herbal and gamey. And a tannic grip on the backend. Needs time. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
2016 Fidelitas Ciel du Cheval Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $55. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 75% New French oak. The first vintage of this wine was in 2012. A bit smoky and a hint of mint and dark fruit on the nose. Really nice fruit and well balanced with depth all the way through. Chalky tannins on the finish. Really nice. Excellent to Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2016 Aquilini Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, WA: Not yet released at the time of tasting. Retail $55. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 28 months in new French oak. Sweet dark fruit. Blackberry and plum. Fairly dark in color. Hints of smoke and oak on the backend of the nose. Dark black fruit and big flavors. Heavy tannins start on the mid-palate and really dry out the finish. Super big and needs a ton of time. Not my style but this will be incredible in 5-10 I would guess. Excellent. 92-94 Points.
2016 Fidelitas Quintessence Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $65. 100% new French oak. Really dark in the glass, but subtle and reserved aromas. Beautiful. Really lovely. The fruit is the star (blackberry and huckleberry) but not boisterous, there are some tannins, but mostly integrated and surprisingly silky. Whoa. Outstanding to Outstanding Plus. 95-97 Points.
2015 Hightower Cellars Estate Red Wine, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $45. Vineyard planted in 2005. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Sweet and tart on the nose with an ounce of funk. I love the funk. A bit of oak and hints of spice. Beautiful fruit. Really juicy and lovely red fruit and sarsaparilla. Wow. While this might not be the most age-worthy of the wines—the tannins are nearly integrated—it might be my favorite in the group for drinking right now. Savory. Lovely. Excellent. 92-94 Points.
2016 Kiona Estate Red Mountain Réserve, Red Mountain, WA: Retail $50. 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, 3% Carménère, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec. Dark fruit with oak and smoke. Rich and lovely as well. Good fruit and balance. Drinking well. Excellent. 90-92 Points.