Weekly Wine Talk: Horse Heaven Hills

Written by
Amy Garofano
Amy Garofano, JM's Wine Educator

Long before being known as one of the state’s most prolific wine growing regions, legend has it that early pioneer and cowboy James Kinney gazed upon the landscape in 1857 and declared “Surely this is Horse Heaven!”. Now, this area of south-eastern Washington, bordered by the Columbia river to the south and the Yakima Valley on the north, is known as the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, home to nearly 30% of the state’s planted vineyard acreage.

Wine grapes were first planted here in 1972 on Mercer Ranch, now known as Champoux Vineyard, which famously has produced some of the state’s most coveted and expensive wines. The area received AVA designation in 2005. For many years, John has sourced Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc from Champoux for his wines- Champoux Vineyard Right Bank, Columbia Valley Syrah, and others.

The Horse Heaven Hills AVA is among Washington’s warmer growing areas, making it ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon (most predominant planting) and Syrah as well as other varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay. Vineyards are typically found on south facing slopes which extend daily sun exposure. The area is prone to significant winds which helps protect against mold and mildew and keeps canopy sizes small and toughens grape skins. As in other regions, the mighty Columbia River plays a significant role in moderating temperature and decreasing the risk of early and late season frost events.

Nowhere is this river effect more obvious than the geologic wonder and extraordinary beauty of The Benches at Wallula Vineyard, terraced high above the Columbia River on 27 “benches” created over 20,000 years ago by the Great Missoula Floods. Here at Wallula, grapes are grown at elevations of up to 1800 ft and drop down to 200ft near the Columbia River which provides necessary irrigation to this arid growing region. From the Benches, John sources Cabernet Sauvignon from the famed “Stiletto Block” (from above it takes the shape of a high heeled shoe!) for Longevity, Cinsault for our annual Provencal-style Rosé, and occasionally a Cinsault Red. In the works, is a newly planted block of Chenin Blanc- a much anticipated new addition to the JM family of white wines. The Benches of Wallula are hard to adequately describe in words but their beauty and ruggedness is dramatic and awe-inspiring. There are photos of The Benches on the JM website as well as photos of our other source vineyards- check them out if you’ve never had a chance to see them in person. Cin Cin!

Fruit on the vine at Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills, AVA
Wallula Gap Vineyard (The Benches) on the banks of the Columbia River.