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Northwest Wine: Williamson Vineyards proves potential of albariño in Idaho

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CALDWELL, Idaho — The Williamson family has been looking for a distinctively crisp white wine to pour in their tasting room on Idaho’s historic Sunnyslope in the Snake River Valley.

Judges at the 2020 Idaho Wine Competition affirm the Williamsons made a delicious decision when they planted the brilliant Spanish white grape albariño, as the Williamson Vineyards 2019 Albariño was voted as best of show, topping a field of 160 entries.

“We’ve found more people are looking for drier white wines, and we were looking to diversify our portfolio,” said Beverly Williamson-Mack, who owns Williamson Vineyards with her grape-growing brother, Mike, and viticulturist cousin Patrick. “Viognier has always been a consistent seller in our tasting room, and we didn’t want to go with chardonnay because there’s a bit of a glut of it in Idaho.”

The Williamsons released their inaugural bottling of albariño ($23) — just 120 cases — to wine club members in June. Tasting room sales have been brisk since the family was allowed to reopen its tasting room in the wake of the pandemic. The buzz surrounding news of the best-of-show wine provides them with a talking point when introducing their albariño to customers traveling along Highway 55 near the Snake River.

“It’s super light and fresh and delicate and almost exotic with a bit of jasmine on it,” Williamson-Mack said. “I tell people, ‘If you stop sniffing and tasting it too soon, you will miss some amazing elements.’”

Earl and Carrie Sullivan at Telaya Wine Co. can make a claim for their syrah-based Turas Journey as the Snake River Valley’s top red wine project, using their expression from the 2018 vintage to win the award for Best Red Wine at the Idaho Wine Competition for the second time in three years. It was one of three gold medals this year for Telaya, which was recognized for its 2018 Scoria Vineyard Malbec and 2019 Carrie’s Select Chardonnay.

Garden City winemaker Melanie Krause of Cinder Wines and Krause & Schnerr Family Cellars amassed six gold medals at this year’s Idaho Wine Competition. She used her 2019 46 Brix Riesling Ice Wine to win the award for Best Sweet Wine. Earlier this summer, that same wine won the same award at the eighth annual Cascadia International Wine Competition.

For the second straight year, Idaho’s top sparkling wine came from young 3100 Cellars and Hailey Minder, who also makes wine for the Sullivans at Telaya.

Also winning multiple gold medals were Camas Prairie Winery, Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Koenig Vineyards, Huston Vineyards/Chicken Dinner Wines, young Rivaura Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Lewis-Clark Valley, Roghani Vineyards and Hat Ranch Winery/Vale Wine Co. Williamson Vineyards also won a gold medal for its 2018 Harvest Moon Red Wine, a mourvèdre-based blend produced by Greg Koenig.

Down in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, Earl Jones of iconic Abacela is smiling. The man responsible for pioneering and promoting tempranillo in the U.S. also is seen as the country’s leading producer of albariño.

The Williamsons credit Martin Fujishin for helping to lead them down the path to albariño. In 2018, the Williamsons established 2 acres of albariño, and one of those acres is farmed on a contract with Fujishin, who owns Fujishin Family Cellars and young Free Dog Wines with Teresa Moye.

“Martin talked about Abacela quite a bit, and we got glowing reviews of their work from anyone I talked to about albariño,” Patrick Williamson said. “We wanted to find a white that can handle our winters that wasn’t chardonnay or riesling.”

If everything plays out, Williamson figures to harvest albariño in the second half of September at around 23 Brix — along the lines of the 2020 Idaho Wine Competition’s top wine.

“We’ve decided that this wine is a vegetarian’s dream,” Williamson-Mack said. “Veggies off the grill is what I’ve been enjoying it with. Seafood, too. And it can handle a cream sauce that’s not too heavy.”

Patrick recently returned from a salmon fishing trip in Alaska.

“They made a paella, and that albariño did very well with it,” he said. “Any Spanish dish or anything with spices.”

Below are reviews of some of the top wines from the competition that saw 36 brands represented among the 160 entries. Find the full results at GreatNorthwestWine.com. Ask for these wines at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.

Williamson Vineyards 2019 Albariño, Snake River Valley $23: Voted best of show at the 2020 Idaho Wine Competition, the Williamson family and the winemaking team at Koenig Vineyards captured much of the charm surrounding this fascinating white grape native to Spain. Classic aromas of lemon verbena, lime, Bosc pear, quince and spice lead to bright flavors of lime sorbet and Asian pear. Its crisp profile offers a hint of salinity in the finish.

Telaya Wine Co. 2018 Turas Journey Red Wine, Snake River Valley $34: For the second time in three years, this syrah-based red blend by Sullivans was selected as the best red wine of the Idaho Wine Competition. The influence of syrah is immediately apparent as the nose gathers up whiffs of blackberry, plum, cured meat and herbs. Those notes follow through in rich fashion, joined by blueberry acidity and a sense of earthiness, leading out with well-managed tannins for a smooth finish.

3100 Cellars 2016 Whitewater Sparkling Wine, Snake River Valley $36: Hailey Minder, whose day job is making wine for Telaya Wine Co., continues to build a following for her boutique sparkling wine project. Her touch with chardonnay is downright delicious and refreshing. It is bright and fresh with notes of light toast, honeysuckle, lemon and white peach. The tiny beads of bubbles and nibble of pear skin in the finish allow it to finish with balance and brilliance.

Koenig Vineyards 2019 Dry Rosé, Snake River Valley $18: The Koenig cellar produced two of the sweepstakes winners at the 2020 Idaho Wine Competition, including the best rosè. This work with mourvèdre brought back a double gold medal and is reminiscent of Provence in its salmon color and brisk profile of engaging Rainier cherry, cranberry and white peach. Pulsating acidity provides thirst-quenching satisfaction and nearly endless food-pairing options.

Camas Prairie Winery 2019 Strawberry Mead, Idaho $12: Jeremy Ritter proves once again that he’s in the discussion of the Northwest’s best producers of honey-based wines. In the past year, he’s earned gold medals for his work with huckleberry as well as raspberry. Here, the focus is strawberry, with the honeyed aspect lingering in the background. The fruitiness, pleasing mouthfeel and balance with the sugar combine for beautifully crafted mead.

• Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. His column runs weekly in SCENE. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.

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