BUHL — Magic Valley wines are starting to make a name for themselves on the region’s biggest stage.
The Holesinsky Winery in Buhl won two double golds at this year’s SavorNW awards, the biggest competition for Oregon, Washington and Idaho wineries. Double gold is the highest honor a wine can receive at the competition, short of receiving both double gold and best in class. Looking at the past winners on the SavorNW website, it appears that the Holesinsky Winery is the first in Idaho to win two double golds in one year.
“It’s a big deal,” said Eric Smallwood, the winery’s former general manager. “It’s the top of the top. … It’s really cool for the Magic Valley to have an award-winning winery like that in the backyard.”
Smallwood said the two wines are impressive for a few different reasons. For one, they were made with some of the most inland-grown grapes in the country — most of America’s top wineries are coastal. In addition to being inland, the Magic Valley’s high elevation can also be a disadvantage. Plus, south-central Idaho’s growing season is relatively short.
“It’s a lot harder to grow grapes here,” Smallwood said.
Growing good grapes in the Magic Valley may be a challenge, but Smallwood said it doesn’t take an expert to recognize the excellence of the two double-gold-winning wines.
“What makes the wines special is just how delicious they are,” he said.
One of the two winners was a 2019 Buhljolais rose of syrah, made from grapes grown at the Gertschen Vineyard in Hagerman. Winery owner James Holesinsky said he’s been fine-tuning the growing system for those grapes for 15 years.
The Gertschen Vineyard grapes were grown on a special trellis system, modeled after the high-altitude trellis methods used on Chilean vineyards. Holesinsky said he tries to learn from the techniques used by winemakers in regions with climates similar to the Magic Valley.
Holesinsky said the 15 years of work paid off.
“The fruit speaks for itself,” he said.
The Buhljolais rose of syrah is powerfully fragrant, Holesinsky said. He described it as having “a huge nose,” with strong tangerine and strawberry notes. The wine was fermented in stainless steel containers with special yeast.
The other double-gold-winning wine, a pinot noir, was made with grapes grown in Hammett. This was the first pinot noir Holesinsky had made, and he explained that his methods for the wine were, by American standards, highly nontraditional.
Holesinsky aged the pinot noir for a year and a half in neutral French oak, and he said the key to this wine was that it was aged on the lees. That means instead of filtering the wine and removing all the dead yeast and particulates, the wine aged with the residue — the lees — in the barrel. Winemakers typically allow the lees to settle to the bottom, then siphon off the top and move it to a different barrel.
Many winemakers are hesitant to age wine on the lees because the process can be risky, Holesinsky said, but he noted his chemistry background gives him more confidence in trickier techniques. For example, this fall he made a rare ice wine, which required harvesting the grapes in the middle of the night while they were frozen on the vine.
Aging on the lees brings some advantages. It means the wine requires fewer sulfides. It also creates different flavors. Holesinsky said this pinot noir has hints of loam and minerals. The wine also has notes of currants and raspberries.
The high potassium content of Magic Valley volcanic soils is what made aging on the lees possible, Holesinsky said. He reiterated that he chooses styles that play to the strengths of the Magic Valley’s climate and geology.
“It matches our altitude, longitude and soil type,” he said. “We’re bringing some of those old historic methods to the U.S.”
Holesinsky also pointed out that good wines come from good grapes. As a winemaker, he’s effectively a coach and the grapes are his players. His job is to train them and use them in ways that maximize their potential.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you’re able to give that wine in the bottle a high five.”