Idaho is about more than just potatoes: Uncork the Forks

A view from Koenig Vineyards in Marsing, Idaho last fall. (Credit: Linda Paul/Flickr)

There are a lot of regions in the United States that have been anointed “the next big thing.” Long Island is on that list, of course. I’ve seen it said about the Finger Lakes and northern Michigan, too. And Idaho.

Yes, Idaho. It’s not all potatoes and trout streams, after all.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to fly into Boise for a few days of wine tasting and vineyard visits, courtesy of the Idaho Wine Commission. I’m literally still unpacking — both my luggage and my thoughts about everything I tasted and learned — but this much is clear: Idaho’s first and main American Viticultural Area is one of the most interesting I’ve visited.

Here on Long Island we like to talk about the diversity of grapes that are grown and wines that are made, and rightly so. Southwestern Idaho takes that diversity to the next level. They are growing and consistently ripening everything from zinfandel to cabernet sauvignon to viognier to merlot to syrah. There are also cooler sites, which tend to be flatter and closer to the Snake River itself, where grapes like riesling and gewürztraminer are grown as well. This is the high desert, so sugars — and thus alcohol levels — are a bit higher than on the East Coast, but the wines also show fresh acidity as well. It can get well over 100 degrees during the day, but often drops to the 50s at night during the summer. Those nightly lows help preserve that acidity.

There isn’t a lot of rain in the region, but there is ample water, much of it supplied by snow melt runoff gathered in reservoirs. Drip irrigation is the norm.

The growing season is hot, but it’s relatively short as well. Winter comes early in Idaho and it can be harsh. Of course that also means that real ice wine — using grapes that freeze while still on the vines — is possible almost every year.

Every few decades or so, they do suffer through brutal, damaging winters, however.

In the winter of 2017, some growers sustained temperatures of minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit — not for a night or two, either. It was that cold for two weeks, which claimed up to 75 percent of the grape crop that year due to bud and vine damage. Luckily, two feet of snow protected the roots, so there was little need for replanting. Growers had to retrain the vines from the ground up, however.

Many of the wineries I visited purchased grapes from neighboring Washington and Oregon to fill out their 2017 portfolios. Some do it regularly anyway, either for stylistic reasons or because there just aren’t enough quality grapes available in Idaho yet. There are about 1,300 acres in the ground for around 50 wineries, with 500 of those acres farmed by a single winery.

Still, the region seems poised for potentially explosive growth. Land is still very affordable. Unlike many high desert growing regions, water is readily available. And, with other large, established wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, there seems to be a lot of young winemaking talent looking for opportunities nearby. That’s something we lack here locally: opportunity.

What about the wines themselves? They are definitely bigger than what we mostly see here on the East Coast, both in terms of alcohol and extraction. Most of my favorite wines were red and they benefited from judicious use of new oak — both French and American, often mixed — as well. I tasted very few wines that were overtly oaky. Syrah and other Rhône varieties from wineries like Colter’s Creek, Telaya Wine Co. and Koenig Vineyards stood out in particular, though there were a couple rieslings I really liked, too. I even found some sparkling wines from 3100 Cellars that were pretty interesting.

The white wines were a bit of a letdown overall, but most of them weren’t made with Idaho fruit because we were tasting mostly 2017s. I hope to get my hands on some of the locally grown 2018s when they come out next year. I’d like to explore that side of the region more.

You won’t find many Idaho wines here in New York, but a couple wineries, including Koenig — which was probably the winery that impressed me most — do have East Coast distribution.

A few days’ visit in a region doesn’t really offer enough information or context to fully understand where that region is going, so I’m not going to make any predictions. I’m not sure the Idaho industry as a whole knows what its future looks like. Diversity can be both a blessing and a curse. But Idaho is a pretty exciting place for wine already. And Boise is a beautiful city with great food, great outdoor activities and more culture than you’d ever expect. I already told my wife that I’d like to take the kids there for an outdoorsy (and wine) vacation.

Lenn Thompson has been writing about American wine — with a focus on New York — for nearly 15 years. After running newyorkcorkreport.com for 12 years, he launched thecorkreport.us in 2016 and The Cork Report Podcast soon after. He lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.

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