Red Mountain is a granite peak situated approximately halfway between Prosser and the Tri-Cities in the Yakima Valley of Eastern Washington. It’s not much of a mountain, rising only about 1,400 feet above sea level. The Horse Heaven Hills, which lie opposite Red Mountain, are higher, reaching an elevation of approximately 1,800 feet, yet paradoxically they are designated as hills.
The term Red Mountain is a reference to the color of the drooping brome or cheat grass that grows on the mountain. Each spring, for a period of several days, the grass turns a brilliant red, hence the mountain’s name.
The Red Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area), is the smallest and warmest viticultural area in Washington state. It is only 4,040 acres in size; roughly 2,500 acres of which are in vineyards. The AVA is part of the Yakima Valley AVA, which is, in turn, part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA.
The AVA is devoted to the production of red varietals, principally, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Wines are typically bottled as single varietals or Bordeaux inspired blends. Roughly 70% of the region’s vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyards are typically oriented on a southwest axis to shade vines from the afternoon sun.
Red Mountain has a very distinctive terroir that is shaped, in large part, by a complex soil geology. At the end of the last ice age, roughly 15,000 years ago, the retreating ice sheet often formed large glacial lakes. The largest of these glacial lakes was called Lake Missoula. To put this phenomenon in perspective, Lake Missoula held roughly as much water as modern-day Lake Erie.
Between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, over a period of roughly 2,000 years, a series of catastrophic floods occurred, possibly as many as 25 times or more, when successive ice dams holding back the waters of Lake Missoula broke. The lake’s waters poured , over a period of a few days, across Eastern Washington and Idaho, before eventually draining into the Columbia River.
The floods released a wall of water, estimated to exceed 1,000 feet high and moving at speeds of more than 80 miles an hour, across the landscape. The floodwaters scoured the landscape, stripping it of much of its top soil, producing the badlands of Eastern Washington.
The eddies produced by the flood waters around its eastern and western flanks of Red Mountain resulted in the deposition of a series of gravel beds or lenses. In addition, as the glaciers retreated, they exposed beds of “glacial flour,” fine-grained, silt-sized particles of rock, generated by the mechanical grinding of the bedrock by glacial erosion.
This very fine-grained sediment often accumulated at the bottom of glacial lakes or in areas previously scoured by glacial ice sheets. When blown by the wind, these sediments are referred to as loess.
Starting about 10,000 years ago, successive layers of wind-blown loess were deposited on the mountain. The result was a complex soil geology consisting of loess soils interspersed with gravel lenses and other glacial debris deposited by the ice age floods.
These soils produce wines with well-defined tannic backbones and a rustic complexity that emphasizes dark fruit notes of blackberry, blueberry plum and prune, along with milk chocolate and exotic spice notes of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
Red Mountain receives less than six inches of rain a year. This desert environment is ideal for reducing disease pressure. Without irrigation water from the Yakima River, however, it would be impossible to grow anything on the mountain.
The sharp diurnal temperature variation typical of desert areas, plus the region’s persistent winds, help preserve acidity. They also encourage thicker skins. While berry size will depend on the clone, grape berries on Red Mountain, according to Kevin Irving, Assistant Winemaker at Upchurch Vineyard, will generally be from 25% to 33% smaller than the same grapes grown elsewhere in Washington state. Thicker skins and smaller berries produce concentrated wines.
The net results are exceptionally structured, fruit forward, flavorful wines, featuring a distinct but well-ripened tannic backbone with notable acidity. These are big wines, with alcohol by volume typically measuring between 14% and 15%, that are capable of extended aging.
Most wineries will generally keep their wine in barrel for 18 to 24 months, and then allow another year or more of bottle aging prior to release. According to Charlie Hoppes, owner and winemaker at Fidélitas, the goal is to release wines only when they are drinkable even though, depending on the vintage, Red Mountain wines usually need another 5 to 10 years of additional bottle aging before they hit their prime.
Below are tasting notes from a recent sampling of Red Mountain wines.
Col Solare, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $75
This wine is a blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet Franc. Col Solare is a joint venture between Tuscan winemaker Marchesi Antinori Srl and leading Washington state winemaker Chateau Ste. Michelle.
The winery has approximately 40 acres of which 27.6 are planted to vineyards. Roughly 80% of their grape production is Cabernet Sauvignon drawn from six principal clones. The vineyards are planted at elevations of between 800 and 1,100 feet.
On the nose, the wine has that earthy, rustic quality typical of Red Mountain wines. There is a distinctive black pepper aroma that leans into slight white pepper notes. The pepper notes are a typical marker for Red Mountain wines, although their distinctiveness will vary by vintage and by the particular combination of Cabernet Sauvignon clones in the wine.
On the palate, there is ripe, dark black fruit, especially, blackberry, plum and prune. The tannins are distinctive and well-defined, but ripe and well-integrated into the wine, and are accompanied by a brisk acidity. The finish is long, with a lingering dried fruit note.
Col Solare, 2017 Component Collection Cabernet Franc, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $85
The Component Collection is a rotating series of expressions that illustrate one of the component varietals, hence the name, in the Col Solare blend. Typically, there is one expression produced each year. The 2017 featured Cabernet Franc and consisted of a blend of 99% Cabernet Franc and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. This bottling is only available at the winery or via its website.
On the nose, the wine seems a touch sweeter, with notes of seasoned oak. There is plenty of black fruit here, but on balance it leans more toward black cherry and blueberry than blackberry.
On the palate, the wine is a little less fruit forward, emphasizing notes of black cherry, blueberry, plum and prune. It has the same distinctive tannic backbone, although in this expression it is a touch more drying. The finish is medium to long, featuring dried, dark fruit notes.
Col Solare, Tenuta, 2016, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $150
The Tenuta is Col Solare’s top expression. It’s a blend of the wineries top 10 barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is hard to find, and has developed something of a cult following. Only about 250 cases are produced, and it typically sells out in a few weeks.
On the nose, this is a brooding, complex wine with notes of dried dark fruits, cherry kirsch, a hint of cola, along with the AVA’s characteristic pepper notes and some seasoned oak wood.
On the palate, the wine shows great structure with a distinctive, slightly drying tannic backbone and crisp, mouth puckering, acidity. There’s lots of black fruit, more dried than fresh, along with some licorice.
The finish is long, with lingering notes of dried black fruit.
This is a wine capable of extended aging. The 2016 was certainly drinkable and would be an ideal accompaniment to a meal, but it was still probably a decade from its prime. Definitely a wine to cellar for a special occasion.
See also Col Solare, 2016 Shining Hill, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml. This is an entry level expression that is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc and 11% Syrah. It has a retail price of $40, and features the distinctive black fruit notes, ripe, slightly rustic, tannic backbone and notable acidity that both Col Solare and the Red Mountain AVA are known for.
Upchurch Vineyard, LTL, Estate Merlot, Red Mountain AVA, 14.6% ABV, 750 ml, $30
The Upchurch Vineyard sits in loess soils at an elevation of about 700 feet. On Red Mountain that’s about halfway from the top. The designation LTL stands for larger than life, a compliment once paid to the company’s founder Chris Upchurch
The vineyard is devoted solely to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery uses large concrete “eggs” to produce its wines. Assistant Winemaker Chris Irving believes the concrete eggs results in more oxygenation of the wine. He also suggests that natural currents fostered by the shape of the egg create more lees contact by suspending a larger proportion of lees in the wine.
On the nose, there are the expected dark fruit notes of blackberry and plum, along with a bit of cherry kirsch and some oak notes. On the palate, the wine is smooth, with well-ripened tannins, black fruit notes and a hint of licorice. The acidity seems less pronounced than elsewhere on the mountain. The finish is long, with lingering black fruit notes.
Upchurch Vineyard, LTL Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain AVA, 2018, 14.6% ABV, 750 ml, $32
Wine Advocate described the Upchurch LTL Cabernet bottling as “the best buy in all of Washington.” The 2019 is a three-vineyard expression drawn from Upchurch’s own estate vineyard, Heart of the Hill Vineyard, and Quintessence Vineyards. Quintessence is the largest grape producer on Red Mountain with some 300 acres in vines. The 2020, not yet released, will be based solely on estate vineyard fruit.
On the nose, there are black fruit notes of plum, blackberry, blueberry and prune, along with some oak aromas.
On the palate, the wine is smooth and supple with the ripe, well-integrated, distinctive tannic backbone that Red Mountain is known for. The same black fruits on the nose reappear on the palate.
The finish is long, with lingering black fruit notes and slightly drying at the end.
Upchurch Vineyard, Counterpart, Red Mountain AVA, 2018, 14.2% ABV, 750 ml, $50
This is a Bordeaux style blend consisting of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon all drawn entirely from the Upchurch estate vineyard and matured in 100% new French oak.
This is a classic Red Mountain wine, big, bold, fruit forward, wrapped in the distinctive Red Mountain tannic structure. The wine draws heavily on the Merlot 181 clone. That particular clone originated in Pomerol, and is widely planted there and may explain the more than passing similarity of Counterpart to the classic right bank Merlot based wines of Pomerol.
Compared to Upchurch’s Cabernet Sauvignon expressions, this wine is more fruit forward, with moderate acidity. The tannins are smooth, well-ripened, proving good structure, but are less drying on the finish.
Cooler years, like 2019 and 2011, tend to emphasize more red fruit notes in the wine.
Upchurch Vineyard, UV Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain AVA, 2017, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $78
This wine is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. All of the grapes are drawn from the estate vineyard and matured in new French oak.
This is a rich, powerful, nuanced wine. On the nose, it has predominantly dark fruit notes, along with some red fruit and cherry kirsch aromas.
On the palate, there are more dark fruits, along with the smooth, well-ripened, tannic backbone typical of Red Mountain Cabernets.
The finish is long, with lingering notes of black fruits, some cherry kirsch and a hint of well-seasoned oak.
Fidélitas, Optu Red Mountain, 2018, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $60
Optu is a classic Bordeaux blend consisting of 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot and 6% Cabernet Franc. All of the grapes are estate grown. Fidélitas Wines was founded by Charlie Hoppes who along with his son, Will, still manages the company. Charlie has been making wine on Red Mountain since 1993.
The vineyard sits at an elevation of 700 feet. According to Hoppes the soils are predominantly loess but contain gravelly soils, along with glacial scree that was left behind by the ice age flood waters, and even a few “erratics,” large stones that were carried by chunks of floating ice and left behind when the ice melted.
On the nose, there is a distinct aroma of black pepper. This feature, typical of Red Mountain wines, Hoppes attributes to the widespread use of Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 8 by area vineyards. There are additional notes of black fruit, along with black cherry kirsch and cola.
On the palate, there is more black fruit, along with the same cherry kirsch and cola notes. The finish is long, with lingering black fruit and cherry kirsch notes.
Fidélitas, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, 2017, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $50
According to Hoppes, the varietal bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon spend 20 to 22 months in barrel, with up to 27 months for “big Cabs,” followed by up to a year in bottle before being released. As a general rule, says Hoppes, he prefers to wait three years after the vintage before releasing his wines.
The varietal bottling of the Cabernet Sauvignon is predominantly based on Cabernet clones 2 and 6, which Hoppes describes as “low production but very fruity.” He describes his philosophy on aging wines as “drinkable on release with their prime in a window 5 to 10 years out. Sooner in a warm vintage and longer in a cool vintage.”
On the nose, there are notes of black pepper and milk chocolate, along with black fruits and a hint of minerality.
On the palate, there are black fruit notes of blueberry, blackberry, damson plum and prune, along with a bit of milk chocolate. The finish is long, with lingering notes of black fruit and milk chocolate.
This is a fantastic wine, flavorful, complex and nuanced; among the best on Red Mountain.
Try also the 2017 Fidélitas Merlot. This wine features more red fruits, along with aromas of wood spice, fresh earth and a dried herbal note. The tannins are softer, better integrated and less obtrusive than in the Cabernet Sauvignon bottling. This is a supple, satiny, smooth wine.
The company’s flagship wine is the Fidélitas, Quintessence Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2017, 14.9% ABV, 750 ml, $70
This wine is made from fruit sourced from two small blocks (#7 and #9) in the Quintessence vineyard and is based on ENTAV Cabernet clones 169 and 191. According to Hoppes, both blocs are on a steep slope and produce “concentrated wines with a hint of dustiness.”
On the nose, there are notes of berry cobbler, along with blackberry, plums, prune and a wet stone minerality.
On the palate, the flavors are more berry jam and dried fruit, with a pronounced blackberry jam and prune note. Both the acidity and the tannins are more pronounced.
The finish is long, layered, with lingering notes of blackberry jam.
The Red Mountain AVA offers rich, powerful, complex red wines. Whether as single varietals or in Bordeaux inspired blends, these wines are capable of tremendous concentration and can be aged for decades.
If you are a fan of warm climate Cabernet Sauvignon and your tastes run to Helena and Calistoga style red wines, not to mention classic Bordeaux blends, there is much you will find worth exploring on Red Mountain.