Snake River AVA
The Snake River Valley AVA is an expansive area covering over 8,000 square miles stretching from northeast Oregon, including substantial parts of Malheur and Baker counties, into southwestern Idaho. It was officially granted AVA status in 2007, first recognised for its abundant harvests of white wine varietals. Riesling, in particular, was a natural fit for the hot days and cool nights of summer, which helps to balance the sugars and natural acids in the fruit.
The Oregon side is home to about a tenth of this AVA, but its distinct climate and soil profile attracts wine lovers and grape-growers from near and far.
The Wild and Scenic Landscapes
One of the reasons many come to the northeast Oregon area of the Snake River AVA is the remote wildness and beauty of the land. Passing the Cascade Mountains into the desert, the landscape shifts into a small plateau that gives way to long stretches of smaller ranges. Visitors can find their own special place in the soaring Wallowa Mountains that form a snow-capped crook around the small towns of Enterprise and Joseph. The nearest towns of substance are Baker City and Ontario, while the Snake River rushes through Hells Canyon, forming the state’s northeast border.
The Environmental Differences that Make Snake River Wines
This is arid high country, with often brutal winters and long hot summers, not exactly the perfect fit for Pinot noir, but Riesling and warmer climate grapes like Viognier and Syrah do well at the higher elevations. Located inland, in the rain shadows of the Owyhee, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade ranges, the region receives 10 to 12 inches of rainfall annually, most in the winter. The microclimates at the majority of Snake River wineries result in no two wines being alike, even when grown within a relatively short distance of each other. While the volcanic soil is one of the most defining characteristics of this AVA, it’s also the small environmental differences. Everything from rainfall and slope direction to soil temperature all significantly impact the wine grape flavours, something that oenophiles refer to as “terroir.”
The Oregon side of the AVA continues to evolve and grow, yet the Idaho side is home to the state’s largest density of wineries and vineyards. The results aren’t just due to the environment, of course, it’s the people behind them. Travis Cook has deep family roots dating back to the late 19th-century and studied horticulture with an emphasis in viticulture at Oregon State University. After managing wine estates and vineyards, he transformed the land that was his family’s homestead into an estate vineyard, planting Riesling, Merlot, and Syrah. Cook’s label, Copper Belt Wines, has a tasting room in Baker City.
The Snake River AVA includes many different varietals in addition to Viognier, Syrah, and Riesling. Koenig Vineyards makes a popular Icewine Riesling along with Cabernet sauvignon. You’ll find spiced fruit wines like Ste. Chapelle’s ‘Soft Huckleberry,’ Chenin blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot noir, among others.