What Makes the Sunnyslope Wine Area in Idaho Special?
By Jim Thomssen, Idaho Wine Ambassador
I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating…Idaho is a world-class wine region! We have two American Viticultural Areas (AVA), the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in Northern Idaho, and the Snake River Valley AVA, where the Sunnyslope region is located, in southwest Idaho. We have amazing viticulture conditions that produce wine that compares to the quality you can find anywhere else in the world. What’s the deal? How did that happen?
Well it has a lot to do with where we are. Idaho is in one of the “Wine Belts” that circle the globe. Look at the belts in the graphic above. Idaho is directly across from the “Old World” regions in France and Germany and just opposite the great new world regions in Chile, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand. I have a friend, Pierre Ly from the University of Puget Sound that has been traveling to the new wine regions in China lately. His reports are pretty impressive about some of the wines that are starting to be made in China. They are in the Wine Belt too so it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. As a side note, the world “Coffee Belt” is right between the two Wine Belts. Coincidence – I think not!
Wine grapes grow best between 30 and 50 degrees of latitude. North or south of the equator really doesn’t matter, that just switches the timing of harvest. It has to do with the amount of sun and heat the vines get (also known as degree days). Grape vines are picky. They need the right conditions to produce fruit with the right sugars and acids that produce great wines. Grapes grow in other areas, but they don’t develop the right chemistry in their fruit to make great wine.
Weather is an important factor, but the soil is really where the magic happens. The Barrett family was one of the California pioneers that helped put US wines on the world stage. This quote attributed to them sums up a lot of the mystery of winemaking. “There are hundreds of decisions that go into making a bottle of wine and it all begins in the vineyard, with the land. One of the most basic and essential ingredients in growing a great grape is starting with healthy soils”
Wine grapes don’t like lush, dark, moist soils. They prefer coarser soils with more drainage and fewer nutrients. Ideally, you want a soil type close to what is called Loam. Made up of silt, sand, clay, humus and some rocks, loamy soil challenges the vines in just the right way to make them produce great grapes with the right chemistry for great wine. Want to see this soil for yourself? Head out to the Sunnyslope area with a shovel. The Sunnyslope agricultural, just a few minutes drive from Caldwell, Idaho, borders the Snake River and was home to immense geologic activity in pre-historic times. Without giving you a giant history lesson (you can get more details from our article about the Sunnyslope terroir) this geological activity resulted in a soil makeup that is mostly loam! In fact, the soil is so good, Caldwell is actually home to the most diverse crop base in Idaho and is known for it’s farm-fresh goods!
Idaho and Sunnyslope are blessed with soils similar to some of the great growing regions in the world. Look at the two pictures below. Yes they were taken in different seasons but look at the soils and the climates. It looks to me like Spain and Idaho are close enough in soil characteristics to make similarly spectacularly great wine. Have you tried an Idaho Tempranillo yet? The grapes in Spain are 70 years older so the fruit is a lot more complex there, but Idaho is making some wonderful balance Tempranillos from Sunnyslope grapes.
The magic happens in the vineyards and the winemakers’ job is not to screw it up in the winery. I have heard this from so many winemakers both near and far that it’s hard to attribute the thought to any one person. The point really is that you need to set the vines in just the right spot, give them just enough sun, water, nutrients and stress, harvest them gently at just the right time, and care for them carefully in the winery to make good wine. Simple right?
My hat goes off to all the intrepid families that have taken the leap to grow grapes and make wine in Idaho. The Pintlers, Bitners, Robertsons, Stowes, Williamsons, Koenigs and Symms are just a few of the families and early believers in Idaho viticulture and enology. They are the pioneers of Idaho wines that we need to thank when we open any bottle of Idaho wine. They saw the soils and felt the warm days and cool nights. They looked at the sugars and PH of the fruit they grew. They balanced luck and art in the wineries that were just a little more than tractor sheds. These people had courage and vision.
So what’s so special about Idaho – we are blessed to live in an area where the tilt of the planet, our geologic and volcanic history, mother nature, shifting weather patterns and the vision of some special folks all came together to make the pert of Idaho a viable and ever-evolving wine region. It’s time to come out and explore. It’s time to expose your palate to the time, chemistry, hope, and love that makes up all Idaho wines . Come on out and explore with me!