Over the last couple of decades, the state of Washington has emerged as a premier winegrowing region, second only to California in the U.S. and the Horse Heaven Hills is one the reasons. Technically a sub-appellation of the massive Columbia Valley, it has been the source of some of Washington’s most celebrated wines.


Horse Heaven Hills is located in south central Washington along the Washington-Oregon border. Naturally bounded on the north by the Yakima Valley and on the south by the Columbia River, the Horse Heaven Hills had its first vinifera plantings in 1972 at what is now Champoux Vineyard but wasn’t designated as its own appellation until 2005. The area has an arid and semi-arid, continental climate, receiving an average of 9 inches of precipitation annually. It is among Washington’s warmer growing regions, though, it is noticeably more moderate closer to the river.  Proximity to the Columbia River results in very windy conditions. Although the winds tend to stress the vines and toughen grape skins, they have a moderating effect on temperature extremes and protect against vine diseases, mold and rot.


Of its 570,000 acres, nearly 15,000 are planted to grapes, around 27% of the state’s total. Of the total 37 varieties planted, two-thirds of the acreage is planted to red wine grapes – mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot but also cabernet franc, malbec, syrah and zinfandel – and one-third to white wine grapes – mostly chardonnay and riesling but also sauvignon blanc.


Located about 3 ½ hours from Seattle or 3 hours from Portland, the nearest wine country towns are Richland (45 minutes) and Prosser (30 minutes). This still is primarily a growing region, not really focused on tourism. There are more than thirty vineyards but only six commercial wineries and one tasting room.  The first wine grape plantings were in 1972 but it wasn’t designated its own appellation until 2005. This still is primarily a growing region, not really focused on tourism. There are more than thirty vineyards but only six commercial wineries and one tasting room.


But the proof is in the wines. Below is a sampling of the quality available:


2012 Chateau St. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon ($28). This winery is THE big player in Washington wine with a history back to the 1930s. Its Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard, planted in 1991, is the source for this and several perennial values. It lush texture displays rich dark and blue fruits, fresh oak, eucalyptus and cocoa.

Columbia Crest H3 Vineyard

2013 Columbia Crest “H3” Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). From a major brand within the St. Michelle portfolio that has been one of the best value brands in the world since its debut in 1984, H3 is, of course, the label they use for wines made of Horse Heaven Hills’ grapes. Its forward plum and blueberry fruit dance with fresh oak on a satiny floor that delivers way above its price level.


2013 Mercer Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). The Mercer family surprisingly has a long history in the area, with ancestors arriving here in 1886. They were the first to plant wine grapes in the area in 1972 on a site that is now the famous Champoux vineyard. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the family decided to make their own wine.. But they didn’t make their own wine until 2005. This Cabernet has nicely integrated plum and creamy oak, a light dusty note with friendly prune, currant and herbal notes finishing fresh.


2010 Coyote Canyon Vineyard H/H Estates Reserve “Big John Cab” ($32). Although the vineyard was planted in 1994, the owners didn’t make their own wine until 2006. This one has plump dark fruits, light earth/forest notes, and a hint of eucalyptus in a light frame finishing lively.


2013 Alexandria Nicole “Quarry Butte” ($26). From the estate Destiny Ridge Vineyard (planted in 1998), this blend is 56% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot, 10% cabernet franc and dabs of malbec, syrah and petit verdot. It bursts with bright blackberry and black currant delivered in a firm but lush texture, accented with fresh tobacco.

Phinny Hill Aerial View

2012 Buty Columbia Rediviva ($50). From the Phinny Hill Vineyard, this 84% cabernet sauvignon, 16% syrah wine opens with herbal and spice notes that quickly give way to rich black cherry and plum gliding along the mouth with an inviting texture finishing with ample but refined tannins suggesting a long life and easily justifying its price. Founded in 2000, Buty has emerged as one of Washington’s best wineries.


NOTE: Featured image courtesy of Horse Heaven Hills Winegrowers

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.