With names such as “Bird Dog White” and “Retriever Red” or even “Summer Rise Chardonnay,” together with fine art paintings of the same on the bottles, Hells Canyon Winery stood out on our tour of the wines produced in Hells Canyon, Idaho.
But there was more too it than clever labeling. It turns out when Steve Robertson first saw the property off Chicken Dinner Road that would become Hells Canyon vineyards, he was totin’ a gun. Ducks and geese were noisy in the sky overhead, but Steve wanted a pheasant. His trusty labrador, Savvy, flushed a covey of quail before they kicked up a colorful cock pheasant. He later realized that this same country could also produce remarkable wines. There are now a few dozen vineyards in this region, most of them very affordable and surprisingly undiscovered.
So it went that the vineyards were planted in 1981 on the sunny slope above the banks of the Snake River and they now grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah varietals at 2,700 feet. The protected Treasure Valley is tempered by marine air flowing from the Pacific along the Columbia and Snake rivers which moderates the mountain climate enough for grapes, similar to those found in Oregon or Washington State.
I have to confess that I don’t like California chardonnays. Most California chardonnays are just too buttery and oaky. The Pacific states seem to follow this trend, but less so. Some of the cheaper ones take short cuts by dipping fragments of oak staves in stainless steel tanks, instead of using the traditional technique of barrel aging. Or, slightly more honest, but equally overpowering, if the wine is aged new French oak casks they generally take on overpowering tastes of vanilla, butterscotch and syrup sweetness, not to mention a harsh smell of oak. The Chardonnay market in the US is always going to be different from other countries, because most of it is served here as a cocktail, not with a meal. Therefore, Americans as a mass are always going to prefer more body, less acidity and more sweetness than Europeans.
The Hells Canyon chardonnay tastes like a properly French balanced Chardonnay, although it is done solely in steel, which also contributes to its reasonable price. But it still has hints of oak and it goes great with our fishing and shooting picnics. You might also pick up a few bundles of vine stalks for use in making a French asado to follow your first course featuring the chardonnay and follow it up with a Retriever Red and some asado.