Part of our series about Washington's viticultural areas.
If the Red Mountain AVA, subject of last week's profile, is the the rodeo rider down in the ring, the Horse Heaven Hills are the bleachers. From the north rim, you see the entire Yakima Valley, with Red Mountain punctuating its eastern end. Across the broad hilltop of the AVA, 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, extends an undulating, dry plateau of loam over fractured basalt formed when the Missoula floods receded, 12,000 years ago. It looks like a mound of crumpled blankets.
Fly over the plateau, or traverse it by car, and you'll see giant "crop circles," 160-acre fields (a quarter section, half a mile on each side) with a giant sprinkler arm positioned in the center, turning slowly to irrigate a field of grass or grain. Not until the legendary Dr. Walter Clore came along in the 1970s did anyone think to plant wine grapes alongside the wheat. Dr. Clore suggested to ranchers Don and Linda Mercer that they ought to put down a vineyard where they were growing carrots, in a little patch that the sprinklers weren't reaching. That was in 1972; today, the property--now known as Champoux Vineyards--grows the fruit for Quilceda Creek's best-in-the-nation Cabernet Sauvignon.
And when Chateau Ste. Michelle went looking for a couple thousand acres in the late 70s, the biggest vineyard expansion up to that point in the Washington's history, the company settled on the southern rim of the Horse Heaven Hills. Paul Champoux, who later purchased the original Mercer Ranch vineyards, was hired to oversee vineyard development; Doug Gore was in charge of wine making. Says Gore: the primary characteristic of Horse Heaven grapes is balance. "The grapes stand on their own, they don't need to be blended with anything else since they already have great flavor intensity and high quality tannins."
In 2005 the Horse Heaven Hills were formally recognized as an AVA covering half a million acres, most of it suitable for vineyards. Already, a quarter of all Washington's grapes are planted here, 28 vineyards, 9 bonded wineries, and nearly 10,000 acres of vines: cabernet sauvignon, cab franc and merlot mostly, but a handful of whites and a miscellany of warm-climate reds.
The most intriguing new project involves the 1,300 acres of bench lands planted over the years by the Den Hoed family and recently purchased by Allen Shoup's Long Shadows development company: south-facing terraces, where rainfall is modest and the heat is mitigated by breezes from the Columbia.
As long as the winds aren't too strong (which would toughen the skins of the grapes), the Horse Heaven Hills are in the running for the state's best red-wine vineyards. After all, Quilceda Creek's streak of six vintages produced four 100-point wines and two 99-pointers, all with grapes from this exceptional AVA.