America’s big-name wine states – California, Washington, Oregon, New York and Virginia – are well known to wine lovers. But smaller (though no less quality-driven) appellations in Idaho, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina and Michigan are among other exciting US wine destinations worth exploring.
While vastly different, these less-famous wine states share some important universal truths. For a start, you won’t find roads clogged with chauffeured limos, and your tasting fees are more likely to be $5 rather than $50 per person. The wineries you’ll visit are almost always intimate, family-run operations, and more often than not the person whose name is on the bottle will be the one pouring you a sample.
Most importantly, the wines will be anything but predictable – expect to find intriguing riffs on less-famous grape varieties such as Malvasia, Lemberger and Dornfelder.
A true taste of America’s entrepreneurial soul is yours to enjoy when you take these wine roads less travelled. First stop, Idaho.
See also: Katie’s Colorado travel guide, and look out for Texas, North Carolina and Michigan coming soon
With its intriguing mix of volcanic and glacial soils, Idaho was once a promising wine-growing region. Indeed, some of the first vines planted in the Pacific Northwest were established in Lewiston, Idaho in the 1860s. Today, the state is home to 65 vineyards, 69 wineries and three AVAs: Eagle Foothills (an AVA within Snake River Valley with 32ha under vine), Lewis-Clark Valley and Snake River Valley.
There are more cows than people here, and the state’s defining quality is its dramatic geologic history, which inspires the vivid-sounding nomenclature of destinations such as Hell’s Half Acre, Sawtooth Mountains and Lava Hot Springs.
Idaho is a basin where glaciers melted and stayed, leaving a mix of sediment and soil. Several young volcanoes also influence the wines, says Ste Chapelle Winery winemaker Meredith Smith: ‘We have cinder pits from volcanoes in our vineyards and they impart special flavours, such as dark red fruit notes, spice and cigar box.’
Its arid climate, long sunny days and cool nights, together with high elevation (upwards of 900m) are distinctive qualities. With 728ha under vine, the largest AVA, Snake River Valley (which also overlaps into Oregon state to the west) is spread across the cities of Caldwell, Boise and Garden City – all within a short drive from one another.
With just 39ha under vine, Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in northern Idaho (also overlapping into Washington state) sits at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains. Vines were planted here as early as 1872, and one might still stumble across abandoned vineyards. Lewis-Clark Valley is part of Idaho’s ‘banana belt’, where more temperate conditions favour varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and other late-ripening Bordeaux grapes.
The most logical base for touring Idaho wineries is the capital city of Boise and the nearby Sunnyslope Wine Trail (about 30 minutes’ drive away). Here, you can rent a bike and visit several wineries via the 40km Boise River Greenbelt. Stop for a private tour and tasting at Telaya Wine Co – its Turas 2018, a blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Tempranillo and Sangiovese, won Best Red Wine at the 2020 Idaho Wine Competition.
In Sunnyslope, look for the richly textured Panoramic Shoshone Falls Malbec 2018 from Ste Chapelle Winery, one of Idaho’s oldest producers and a standard-bearer for the Snake River Valley terroir. It also runs concerts and has yurts for overnight stays. Next door, Sawtooth Winery also hosts concerts and themed dinners, or just visit to taste its Classic Fly Riesling or Sparkling Brut.
Idaho wine travel guide: where to stay & eat
Inn at 500 Capitol is a contemporary property in the centre of Boise, with luxurious touches such as fireplaces and private balconies, and three top-floor penthouse suites. Richard’s Restaurant & Bar is located in the hotel and serves sophisticated Italian fare along with a wine list that features several Idaho wines. Book early as it’s a local favourite.
Located in Boise’s hip Linen District, The Modern Hotel and Bar is a stylish, reimagined ex-Travelodge, owned and operated by a Basque family. (Boise has the largest concentration of Basques outside Spain). Guests love the hotel’s popular cocktail bar and restaurant Txikiteo, helmed by James Beard Award-nominee Nate Whitley and focused on local ingredients.
The Grove Hotel is one of Boise’s most luxurious properties, located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of almost everything. It has a spa, hot tub, pool and a beautifully upscale restaurant, Trillium.
In Caldwell, on the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, visit Grit for inspired comfort food – the slow-fried chicken is a must-try.