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On Wednesday Washington received its 12th American Viticultural Area (AVA) – Naches Heights. Here’s an in depth look at the state’s newest growing region.

Naches Heights is situated in Yakima County, lying between the small towns of Naches and Tieton, northwest of the city of Yakima. A million year old andesite lava flow, originating from the Goat Rocks, formed the region.

A subregion of the Columbia Valley viticultural area, Naches Heights is bounded by the Naches River to the north and east; the lower Tieton River to the west; and Cowiche Creek to the south and west. Andesite cliffs also help form the boundary to the north, east, and south. The area is 13,254 acres in size.

Elevations at Naches Heights range from 1,200 to 2,100 feet, making it considerably raised from much of the surrounding area. The plateau is generally flat, increasingly gently in elevation from southeast to northwest. The elevation and gentle grade help colder air drain into lower lying areas.

Naches Heights is distinct from a number of Washington’s growing regions in that it is above the level of the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic events that occurred repeatedly 10,000 years ago. Unlike these areas, which have alluvial soils, Naches Heights is all windblown soil, or loess (pronounced ‘luss’), which continues to accumulate. The soil also contains a significant amount of clay, helping to retain water.

As a vinifera grape growing region, Naches Heights had its commercial start less than ten years ago when Phil Cline, a third generation farmer, decided it was time to get out of the tree fruit business. He sold off much of his land but kept a parcel in Naches Heights that had been in the family for three generations. A neighbor suggested he use the land to plant a vineyard. Cline decided to take the plunge.

In 2002 Cline planted Naches Heights Vineyard. The site is 24 acres with 7.5 acres planted to wine grapes. The vineyard is planted to Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah ("I took a leap," Cline says of the latter). Cline produced his first wines from his vineyard in 2005, a Pinot Gris and Riesling. “This was my way of staying in agriculture,” Cline says.

Meanwhile, winemaker Paul Beveridge of Wilridge Winery had been looking to buy a piece of vineyard property for five or six years, ideally something that would cut down on his commute back and forth to Seattle. When he ran into Phil Cline at a wine event, Cline suggested he look at property in Naches Heights. Beveridge says of his vineyard site, “I took one look at it and said, ‘This is just incredible!’ We bought it the next day.”

Vineyard plantings at Wilridge Vineyard began in 2007, and 12 acres are currently planted to 23 different varieties as a test block. So far, Beveridge, who got his first fruit off the vineyard in 2009, has been pleased with the results, saying, “Anything cold hardy does well."

Though Wilridge and Naches Heights are currently the only two wineries in the area, other winemakers and growers have begun moving in. Robert Goodfriend of Harlequin Wine Cellars has a seven-acre piece of property with 2.5 acres planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner (an extreme rarity in Washington), Malbec, and Grenache in 2008. That same year, Strand Vineyard was planted to five-acre of Graciano, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, and Cinsault. In 2009 three additional acres were planted to Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. Aecetia Vineyard, owned by Doug MacKinnon, is 7.3 acres planted to five different varietals. Keller Vineyard is planted to one acre of Syrah. Finally, there are small plantings of Chenin Blanc and Marquette near Tieton.

This brings total plantings in Naches Heights to about 40 acres at present – less than a single vineyard in some areas. Cline currently manages all of these properties.

Intriguingly, all of the Naches Heights AVA vineyards are farmed sustainably, biodynamically, or organically (see Table 1).

Table 1
Organic
BD
Sustainable
Notes
NHV
Yes
Yes
Yes
Organic and Biodynamically farmed. LIVE and Salmon Safe certified.
Wilridge
Yes
Yes
Yes
Demeter Certified Organic and Biodynamic
Aecetia
Yes
Yes
Yes
Demeter Organic and Biodynamic not certified yet
Strand
No
No
Yes
Currently Salmon Safe certified LIVE Certification expect 2012
Harlequin
Yes
Yes
--
No certification at present
Keller
No
No
Yes
Certification process starts 2012 for LIVE and Salmon Safe


Paul Beveridge says of his decision to farm biodynamically, “I came from a wine quality standpoint. Some of the most exciting and delicious wines I tried were from biodynamic vineyards.”

As a growing region, Naches Heights is dry due to a rain shadow caused by the Cascade Mountains. The area receives 10 to 13 inches of precipitation annually. Naches Heights is also quite cool due to its elevation. “Some years we’re barely in the region of being able to get grapes ripe,” Cline says.

Below is a Growing Degree Day comparison of Naches Heights to other Washington AVAs for 2010 and 2011, both cool years. GDDs for 2005 to 2009 ranged from 2560 to 2945.
Table 2
Growing Degree Days
Year
Naches Heights
Red Mtn
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley
Lake Chelan
HHH
Wahluke Slope
2011
2159
2715
2562
2312
2457
2662
2680
2010
2248
2753
2325
2325
2547
2758
2709

Cline began laying the groundwork for AVA designation in 2008. “It’s a lot of work,” he says of the process. Beveridge, a Seattle lawyer, eagerly joined in and became a driving force. Two students from Yakima Valley Community College were also instrumental in the project. The application was filed in January of 2009, almost a full two years ago.

So, now the important question. How does this new area express itself in the wines? These are, obviously, very early days with few vineyards planted and none that have seen more than a handful of vintages. Still, Cline and Beveridge believe they have started to see hallmarks of the area.

“The wines all have very distinct aromatics, more so than I find in some of the other areas,” Cline says. “The aromatics are all very big.” He also notes that the grapes retain their acidity. Beveridge agrees, saying, “We get nice preservation of acidity and great fruit expression due to the cooler nights.”

Now that the AVA is approved - it will be published in the Federal Register on January 13 - wineries will be able to label any wines that are currently in tank or barrel with the Naches Heights designation as long as at least 85% of the fruit is from the area.

While Cline is excited about receiving AVA designation, an early Christmas present, he says there is another side to it. “Now the pressure is on Paul and I to produce!”

Picture 1: Digital Elevation Model of Naches Heights, courtesy of Kevin Pogue, Whitman College
Picture 2: Andesite cliffs on Naches Heights, courtesy of Paul Beveridge
Picture 3: Aerial view of Wilridge Vineyard, couresty of Paul Beveridge

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11 comments

  1. John Cooper Says:
  2. Great article and reporting Sean. All of us here in Yakima County are excited with this new AVA. Phil, Paul and the folks up there deserve kudos for their vision, dedication, and hard work.

     
  3. terroirist Says:
  4. Nice post, Sean. A few other tidbits: The Tieton andesite flow, which forms the bedrock for this AVA is, at 80 km, the longest andesite flow in the world. The lava was derived from the now deeply eroded Goat Rocks volcano (near White Pass), part of the modern Cascades - and has no genetic relationship to the Columbia River Basalt, which forms the bedrock for most Columbia basin vineyards. Only Naches Heights AVA and parts of the Columbia Gorge AVA can claim to have bedrock produced by Pleistocene Cascade volcanism. Having said all this, the andesite may not have much direct influence on the terroir since the loess-based soils may be so thick as to preclude interaction between the vines and the bedrock.

     
  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. "the andesite may not have much direct influence on the terroir since the loess-based soils may be so thick as to preclude interaction between the vines and the bedrock."

    Well, this is likely to vary, isn't it? I've been told there are "pockets" there filled in by the silt loam, i.e. some places it is deeper than others. I've also been told that there are parts where the andesite is more exposed/close to the surface. Incidentally, these outcrops make the planting large vineyards problematic for those who would use mechanized viticultural techniques, so we're not likely to see large operators move in there. And finally, that there has been freeze/thaw fracturing & pulverizing of the andesite over the millenia, such that there is some mixing, particularly in these more exposed areas. Bottom line, while it may be rare for vine roots to get to the bedrock there, it might be a bit less so for them to have interaction with andesite.

    If this is so, it would be interesting to plant around these areas and make wine solely from those grapes, no? I'm not sure how much different andesite is from basalt in terms of influence on grape flavor. Depends on what basalt you're talking about, right?
    As a geologist with an interest in viticulture, have you have ever pulverized some different rocks and tasted them? Would that be a worthwhile exercise? Thinking one might want to spit :>)

     
  7. Roger King Says:
  8. Fantastic achievement with a great exploration to come. We have posted the AVA to the appellation index in Appellation America and would eagerly use additional content to fill out the profile. Borrowed your diurnal map to show AVA area. Please keep us posted as other wineries develop in AVA and who uses grapes under this appellation on label

     
  9. terroirist Says:
  10. Anonymous: I'm sure there are many areas on Naches Heights where the loess is shallow enough so that the andesite is well within reach of the roots, but from what I can gather, the existing vineyards have relatively deep loess-based soils. No doubt there is a weathered zone at the andesite/loess interface that would allow more interaction with the roots and andesite-derived minerals/elements. As a geologist, I have a soft spot for vineyards planted in shallow rocky soils, where there's more bedrock/vine interaction. Andesite chemically differs from basalt in typically having more silica, potassium, and sodium and less iron, magnesium, and calcium. It is also lighter in color.

     
  11. During research for the AVA project, I learned that there are two main soil types on Naches Heights: Tieton Loam and Ritzville Loam. Both are Loess based soils; the only difference I could ascertain is that the Ritzville Loam deposits are deeper and not influenced by the Andesite. The Tieton Loam contains degraded Andesite. The Ritzville Loam is predominantly found on East and NE facing slopes and depressions on Naches Heights where the wind has had a million years to deposit deep loess. At Wilridge Vineyard we do not know the depth of the loess in the center of the vineyard, but the vineyard area is surrounded by bedrock Andesite outcrops on all sides. Certainly the soil near the edges of the vineyard is influenced by the Andesite as the grapes grow right to the rock outcrops. Perhaps we will notice some micro-terroir differences between grapes grown on deep or shallow loess in the vineyard.

     
  12. Chris Says:
  13. Great Report Sean... You forgot the town of Cowiche, which is the mailing address for several of us Naches Heights residents :) Folks asking about he andeosite. It's there with bluffs sticking out of the loess everywhere. So the depth of Leoss varies from Zero feet to probably 50 feet or more. Hard to dig anywhere without hitting a rock, but thousands of acres of this area are planted to apples and pears and cherries, so farming exists and much of the tilling has already happened. Large organic blueberry and raspberry farms too. Phil converted some of his family's orchards to grapes, so others might do the same.

    Visit the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy and donate buck or two when you come.

     
  14. Clive Says:
  15. I had Phil's BioD Syrah a few years ago and it was astounding. The aromatics were predominantly floral notes you'd expect of a white wine, nice wine to boot. Seems there is something unique to be offered here. I'm hearing some chatter from other winemaker types that NH is not unique or that it's a "gated community" one person's term. While the latter could be debated given how few folks are there and that they all share a connection. It seems the proof is outlined above and in the comments on the unique nature of the site.

     
  16. Chris Says:
  17. As to the wines, in honor of the occasion, Barb and I drank Phil's 2008 Naches Heights Vineyard Syrah last night, maybe the same one Clive mentions. I think it is different than most other Syrahs I've drank in Washington. Of particular interest is the orangey citrus note on the nose.

    Here is my tasting note, as posted on CellarTracker:

    Drank in honor of Phil and Paul succeeding in getting the Naches Heights AVA approved! The wine has a dark color with magenta rim, nose is candied plums with an orangey citrus note, palate is medium with strong black pepper, underpinned by black tar and cocoa and slight green pepper notes. Finish has more tannins than expected but not overpowering, smooth and well integrated. Nicely in balance and interesting wine.

    Congrats Naches Heights!!!

     
  18. Chris Says:
  19. Clive, I haven't seen many gates up here either. It's a farming community and has been for 100 years. Yes, there are some nice homes here, because the views and the landscape is astoundingly beautiful. But land is still relatively cheap, compared to any other vineyard land in the state, and the per square foot property values would make anyone from the West Side jealous.

     
  20. Sherry Says:
  21. Wow, I learn so much each time I visit this site! I'm excited to try a wine from NH, and add my congratulations to the folks who have been working toward this designation. Salud!

     

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