Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills viticultural area is bracketed to the north by the AVAs of Columbia Valley and Yakima, and to the south by the mighty river itself. Its topography and climate is sometimes said to resemble the Rhône Valley (for its steep benches and sandy loam). Winds are abundant, and the region is warm, with little rainfall, so supplemental irrigation is common.
Growers here have predominantly planted Rhône grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, and Viognier, and Bordeaux cépages like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc. But experimentation seems to be the rule rather than the exception, and you might equally tumble upon Lemberger, Riesling, Barbera, or Tempranillo. Why not?
Alexandria Nicole’s 367-acre Destiny Ridge estate vineyard was planted in 1998 to a (cf.) party mix of grapes. White wines include Rhône varietals and blends plus a little Riesling, while the red production skews bordelais. Jarrod and Ali Boyle (the eponymous Alexandra Nicole) own the operation; Jarrod makes the wine. Production is about 10,000 cases annually, making them among of the region’s largest family producers.
Château Ste. Michelle, with over 1,000 acres in cultivation, earns that top berth. Their 559-acre Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard is a steep, south-facing plot hugging the right bank of the Columbia. It’s planted largely to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Their Horse Heaven Vineyard is 469 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Riesling.
Columbia Crest, owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, planted their first vines in Horse Heaven Hills in 1978. Their H3 line debuted in 2008 and includes Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, along with the Cabernet Sauvignon tasted here.
The Mercer family of Mercer Estates was actually the first to plant grapes here, in 1972. They currently farm 800 acres in seven vineyards spread across the AVA. Under their Reserve label (below) they offer Rhône and Bordeaux blends, plus varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Mercer’s is a diversified farm; they also package corn and carrots.
Horse Heaven Hills is clearly a region that, even at ten years old, is still trying to sort itself out. But in the meantime, its wines are ripe for tasting.
2011 Château Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon “Canoe Ridge Estate” Horse Heaven Hills
14.5% abv | $30 (sample)
Opaque; the color of black plum skin but with a clear red mantle. The body yields blueberries, black currant, toasted cedar, and baking spice, plus a whiff of brushy herbs. Velvety tannins smooth the way toward a deep, plummy finish. Ready now.
2011 Mercer “Ode to Brothers” Reserve Horse Heaven Hills
14.9% abv | $42 (sample)
A blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grown in the estate’s Spice Cabinet and Champoux vineyards. “Ode to Brothers” is a hat-tip to Mercer brothers Bud, Don, and Rick, who helped establish the AVA. The wine is a brilliant ruby color with ample black fruits, smoked meat, and baking spices. It spent 28 months in French and American barriques, and the treatment feels prominent here. Fans of heavily oaked wines will enjoy it, although I’d prefer more clarity.
2011 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon “H3” Horse Heaven Hills
14% abv | $15 (sample)
Fresh and juicy but with a great tannic texture that gives the wine heft and seriousness. The ruby-garnet body is redolent of crushed blackberries and spice, and the terrific acidity carries these berry and red currant notes forward before the drying tannins kick in. Food-friendly and a good value.
2011 Alexandria Nicole Cellars Red Blend “Quarry Butte, Destiny Ridge Vineyards” Horse Heaven Hills
14.5% abv | $25 (sample)
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, this wine is brilliant ruby-purple with glints of fuchsia. A fragrance of purple iris, blueberries, and salted earth leads to a lean and juicy palate. There are both red and blue fruits here, top notes of birch and sassafras, plus ample acidity and supple tannins. Nice now, but will be even better with a year or two of bottle age to polish its sharp edges.
2012 Alexandria Nicole Cellars Carmenère “Sergeant Pepper” Horse Heaven Hills
14.2% abv | $45 (sample)
Deep ruby-purple with cracked pepper and cedar aromatics; a hint of green suggests the grape’s Cab Franc parentage. It’s lean on the tongue, with woodsy cyprus, cranberry, green pepper, and tobacco. With more air (and with food) the oak stands up, offering vanilla and clove in its open palm. Admirable now, but it could also loiter amiably in the bottle awhile.
This article has been updated with additional information about the climate of Horse Heaven Hills.