In 2005, we embarked on a simple mission: produce the best food friendly Riesling possible. Our customers demanded that the Riesling remain affordable, and we wanted to meet that demand, so we set a limit of a $12 price tag.
The mission took us on a journey through some of the Northwest’s finest Riesling vineyards and finally led us to the breathtaking Wallula Benches Vineyard in the Eastern corner of Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA. The Wallula Benches Vineyard, is a spectacular southward-sloping vineyard site on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington’s Wallula Gap. The terraced vineyard blocks range in elevation from 320 to 1,350 feet.
The Wallula Gap is an area with incredibly rich soil, great for growing grapes. This fertility is the direct result of a geological anomaly called the Missoula floods. Geologists estimate that the cyclical flooding occurred approximately 40 times during the last Ice Age between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. These floods were cataclysmic, sweeping over eastern Washington and down through the Columbia Gorge. Imagine the bursting of a glacial dam of ice, the water behind it pouring across the landscape. Once emptied of water, the lake would reform its ice dam and the glacial lake water would again accumulate. The cycle of flooding and lake reformation would occur every 55 years on average. The floods deposited Shano silt loam soils on top of rocky terrain, right where The Benches sits now. The silt loam at The Benches is about 12 feet deep at the top of the hill and shallows to 5 feet at the water’s edge.
This region experiences annual rainfall of less than 12 inches, so access to water for irrigation is one of the great challenges in growing vinifera. Since 1972, The Benches vineyard has had uninterruptible senior water rights to the Columbia River, something that has since become nearly impossible to obtain. Most of the few who have precious rights to take water from the Columbia must contend with murky water. However, The Benches sits at a bend in the river where the mud and silt collects on the other side, providing a basin of clean water for irrigation.
This lack of rainfall and the marginal climate of the Pacific Northwest can be challenging at times. But when all the inputs come together the result is a thing of real beauty, producing balanced wines with structured acidity. Aside from the exceptional Riesling grown in the Wallula Gap, the area’s similarities to the Mosel-Rhine has drawn the attention of many of Germany’s most respected Riesling producers, such as Ernie Loosen and Armin Diel. In what amounts to a huge testament to the quality of this fruit, these prestigious winemakers and others have focused their energy on making Washington Riesling, many of them sourcing fruit from this very special vineyard.
The vineyard at the Benches was planted in 1998 by the Den Hoed family, who still manage the operation today. The family had a long history of farming in their native Holland. After emigrating in 1948, they planted their first grapes in the Columbia Valley in 1956. Today, NxNW has 42 acres planted in The Benches under long-term contract. We have planted Riesling clones 198, 239, and 90. Harvest of these vines usually occurs around October 1st. We have also planted Chardonnay and some bourdeaux varietals in the Wallula Benches vineyard as well.