Hills, horses and heaven

It's getting hot in here!Few images evoke the romance of the West more strongly than a herd of wild horses roaming grassy hills, steam from their collective breath diffusing the sunrise into a golden mist. This symbol of fierce independence and perseverance descended from horses brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors 400 years ago.

Wine grapes established themselves much more recently but have just as assuredly become a fixture in the western landscape. Washington’s Columbia Crest vineyard unites both bits of regional history in the 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Les Chevaux red wine.

“Les Chevaux,” for those of you whose knowledge of French is limited to fries, toast and whatever you learned in the back seat of first car, means “the horses.” The “hills” refer to the dry-but-fertile ground in eastern Washington where Columbia Crest grows grapes of consistent quality and intensity. The terrain and ever-present winds challenge vintners here, but the result in this case is an interesting, affordable wine.

We picked up a bottle for $11.99 at Fred Meyer on a co-worker’s recommendation. That’s a little more than we usually spend, but there’s value in knowing that someone’s already taken the wine out for a spin and enjoyed it. To be honest, we were so busy enjoying the first bottle that we had to buy a second to review. (This happens more often than we’d like to admit.)

The dark cranberry color and fairly unremarkable nose don’t immediately reveal this wine’s complexity. It brings a combination of berry and earthy oak flavors, with a hint of smokiness. The winemaker also claims notes of licorice, chocolate and mocha. Hmmm. Chocolate, maybe, but this wine doesn’t seem to aspire to those darker regions of the palate. The finish is slightly acidic, with tannins that excite the tongue without lingering.

This vintage is 80% merlot, 13% cabernet sauvignon and 7% syrah. According to Columbia Crest’s website, the 2010 growing season was cooler than previous years, and fruit was generally less plentiful. A consistently warm autumn ripening season resulted in grapes that produced wines of fairly low alcohol content and balanced acidity.

This is no sweet summer sipper, nor is it a heavy red best paired with beef or hearty pasta meals. It’s a delightful middle-of-the road blend that doesn’t skimp on drinkability or flavor.

Overall, this wine pairs nicely with the creamy Finnish summer soup we were enjoying in the dead of winter. There aren’t many things that are better on a cold winter night (it’s down around 0° as this is being written) than a warm bowl of homemade soup — unless it’s a warm bowl of soup and a glass of wine. And a vision of a wild stallion roaming the rolling hills of the upper Columbia River Valley.

Aromatique: The thin, almost watery nose is deceiving. It hints at a much lighter wine.

Sip quips: Intense blueberry and dark cherry backed by a hint of earthiness, oak and distinct tannins.

Kitchen couplings: Mild fish or chicken dishes would do well, as did our version of this creamy Finnish summer soup. Apparently summer in Finland is a lot like winter in Idaho.

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