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Pressing Issue in Washington: Making Ice Wine

Low temperatures early in the season that freeze ripe fruit on the vine are essential to producing a super-sweet drink with concentrated flavor.

November 10, 2002|Linda Ashton | Associated Press Writer

YAKIMA, Wash. — A killing freeze in central Washington turned out to be icing on the grape for some wineries with fruit still in the vineyard.

"This was a welcome surprise and a rare opportunity for us," said Erik Olsen, winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. "All of the necessary conditions for ice wine came together -- low temperatures early in the season and ripe, healthy fruit still hanging on the vine."

A 15-person crew waited under a starry sky Oct. 31 in the Horse Heaven vineyard until temperatures dropped to 12 degrees at 3 a.m., then spent three hours picking frozen Riesling grapes.

"Handling the grapes was like holding marbles," Olsen said. "It's important to harvest and press the grapes while still entirely hard frozen. Under pressure, the berries give up juice that is highly concentrated in sugar and flavor, while water, in the form of ice, is left behind."

The sweetness is measurable -- 42 degrees on the Brix scale, compared with 23 degrees Brix for a Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, part of the Stimson Lane wine company, has made ice wine only two other times, in 1978 and 1995. This freeze's crop will yield about 300 cases.

At Washington Hills Cellars, winemaker Flint Nelson likes it even colder when he makes ice wine for the Sunnyside winery's Apex label. He's waiting for the overnight temperature to drop to 10 degrees in the Outlook vineyard. The last time the winery made ice wine was Dec. 15, 2000.

"It's very difficult to make and very labor-intensive, especially when it's 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Working outside, it's miserable," he said.

"It's a very slow process to press the little bit of juice you get out of them. The yields are very low."

The Apex ice wine is made from Gewurztraminer grapes that are left on the vine in anticipation of frigid temperatures.

He expects to make about 400 cases of 375-milliliter bottles that will sell for about $35 apiece, compared with a regular 750-milliliter bottle of Gewurztraminer that would sell for under $10.

Covey Run, also in Sunnyside, will make about 1,500 cases of Riesling ice wine and 1,200 cases from semillon grapes, all in half-bottles as well.

"That little bottle has as many grapes in it as a standard size -- what's missing is the water," winemaker Kerry Norton said. "It's very flavorful, very sweet, very rich and very yummy."

It was 9 degrees in Covey Run's semillon vineyard near Zillah when the grapes were picked. The decision to set up the machinery, pick the grapes and make the wine was made on the spur of the moment, once Norton realized that there was going to be a hard freeze.

"This is a once-in-several-years opportunity," Norton said. "We had the grapes and we had the conditions, so we went for it."

Washington is the nation's second-largest wine producer, behind California, with more than 200 wineries and 28,000 acres planted in wine grapes.

This season's ice wines will be available next year.

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