further thoughts on the naches heights ava

Friday, December 16, 2011

Approved! The 12th Washington AVA is Naches Heights. The news was lost in the shuffle a bit, as two new California AVAs were granted at the same time. But for Washington, it represents another important step in the vivisection of the enormous Columbia Valley (Washington’s equivalent to, say, North Coast).

The defining difference of this new region appears to be its unique soil characteristics. As the application explains:

“The proposed Naches Heights viticultural area encompasses 13,254 acres and contains 105 acres of commercial vineyards either producing or expecting to produce wine grapes in the foreseeable future. Recent plantings include 74 acres in 2009 and 15 acres in 2010, according to the petition, in addition to an earlier 16 acres of wine grape producing vines.

Approximately one million years ago, the termination of andesite flow from the Cascade Mountains down the valley of the Tieton River formed the Naches Heights plateau. The proposed Naches Heights viticultural area is located on, and encompasses, a geological formation of Tieton andesite, a volcanic rock.

The Naches Heights plateau landform... has generally deep loess soils with adequate drainage and deep rooting depths conducive to successful viticulture. Further, the grape vine roots are not prone to freezing, or winterkill, in the deep plateau soils. Unlike the plateau, much of the greater Columbia Valley region that surrounds the Naches Heights was covered by alluvial material deposited by the ancient Missoula Floods. Hence, the proposed viticultural area is surrounded mainly by gravelly alluvial soils readily distinguishable from the Tieton loam and Ritzville silt loam of Naches Heights.”

A commenter on this blog adds this: “the fact that the whole AVA is on top of andesite intrigues me. Though related to basalt, it is a bit different, having rather more silica and alkali and calcium, among other things (depends on the type of basalt one is using as a comparator; I gather from reading ‘Mr. T's’ paper that most of the Columbia Valley basalt is tholeiitic, which is relatively high in silica). It is fair to say some of this is on the soil, through fracturing and pulverization over the millennia, in spite of the soil being mostly wind blown loess. The extent to which roots suck up andesite based nutrients is obviously going to vary from place to place within the AVA.”

One expert to whom I spoke noted that the soil here is the most consistently uniform of any AVA in the state. What are the implications for the wines? We shall see. I am no soil geek, I promise you. But the new critic for the Wine Advocate, David Schildknecht, is. And the word on the street is that his first trip to Washington, coming up in March, will focus mostly on visiting and learning the soils in the various AVAs. Which seems to me to be as good a place as any to begin.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations Naches Heights…..but, really? We can talk about soil compositions and its effect on wine grapes all we want but what about the climate in Naches Heights? In my book, climate trumps soil because if you can’t get your grapes ripe then you will not be successful in making good wine year after year. I happen to live in around the area and believe me, those grapes barely got to 20 brix two out of the last three years. I have a tough time understanding how the government can continue to award these AVA’s. It seems more about the prestige, the $$$ and the tasting room traffic than it is about wine quality, because in the end it’s about the wine. Yep, ok good, they have nice soil, now how about the wine? Im sure Snoqualamie Pass has good soils, I wonder how Riesling would do up there?

Chris said...

Dear Anonymous, you ever heard of Champagne? or Alsace? or Mosel? Lots of wine regions have a hard time consistently making 28 Brix Zinfandel, but that doesn't disqualify them. Phil has 6-8 vintages under his belt, yes some better than others, but the glass is half full in my book on Naches Heights. Congrats Phil and Paul B!

Anonymous said...

I posted here and on Sean's blog to make sure this subject got properly beaten to death. We're getting there.
First, a mea culpa. I said that there was more calcium in andesite than basalt. Apparently, there's less, according to terroirist, who should know. I think I also said I know enough about geology to be dangerous. Case in point.
That said, I'll stand by my assertion that there are plenty of outcrops of andesite poking through the soil in the AVA, and that vines planted near them should get plenty of interaction with the andesite.
I was thinking of Paul Beveridge's vineyard, which I have visited many times. Indeed, Mr. Beveridge confirms that some grapes are planted right next to a couple of such outcrops there.
I hope he will isolate grapes from those areas and ferment them separately, with an eye to making an "outcrop" bottling.
I wanna taste the andesite!

Aside to the above anonymous. Your point that the AVA is one of the coolest is well taken. If the last couple of years are the start of a trend, the AVA is in trouble. But if one believes global warming is here to stay, Naches Heights will fare well.

terroirist said...

Just to geek out a little more... What's ultimately important isn't bedrock chemistry, it's the "plant available" chemistry of the soil. Andesite may typically have more potassium and sodium and less iron and magnesium than basalt, but the differences don't matter unless those elements have been made available to the vine roots via weathering. For example, a deeply weathered andesite-derived soil could have more plant-available iron than a lightly weathered basalt-derived soil. And yes, anonymous, climate does trump soil type - vines will grow in almost any type of soil, but not any climate. However, Naches Heights' ubiquitous Tieton andesite bedrock is one of the most distinguishing characteristic of its terroir.

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