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Monday, Dec. 22, 2008

Frosty weather delights makers of ice wine

BENTON CITY -- Bundled up in a red ski coat and black cap, Scott Williams holds up a frozen Chenin Blanc grape that's ready for pressing.

His rosy cheeks match his jacket and despite temperatures in the teens and a gray sky threatening snow, the winemaker for Kiona Vineyards Winery in Benton City smiles as he talks about the fruit he's processing for ice wine.

"What we're trying to do is concentrate the juice by freezing the water out of it," Williams said last week.

That process was set in motion by the arctic blast that hit the Mid-Columbia.

Temperatures around 15 degrees are needed to freeze the grapes, which have a high sugar content because of the long time they've been hanging on the vine, Williams said.

Sometimes the fruit freezes as early as Halloween and sometimes they don't turn icy until January. But usually picking and pressing happens around Thanksgiving.

"We were getting worried because the longer they hang the more likely they are to fall off," he said.

Normally the grapes are machine picked because of its speed, but because temperatures stayed cold enough, the 20 tons of fruit was handpicked last week by a dozen workers.

Handpicking means fewer grapes are lost, creating a higher yield, Williams said.

As 2 tons of grapes were dumped into the press, Williams explained it takes six hours to press frozen grapes, double the time required for table wine grapes.

And all for a much smaller yield: One ton of table wine fruit generally produces about 170 gallons of juice. Ice wine yield is about half that, Williams said.

But there aren't many places in the world that have weather conditions ideal for sweet fruit that also get cold enough to freeze the grapes naturally.

"It's a pretty unique product," Williams said, and one that's sold all over the world.

Ice wine originated in Germany and is one of the more rare wines in the world, according to Food & Wine magazine.

Kiona's ice wine has received numerous awards in a variety of competitions.

This year's 1,500 cases will be ready for drinking in the summer, when snow and subzero temperatures are only a memory.

In the meantime, Williams dipped a paper cup into the thick juice under the press and took a sip of the future wine.

"I think it tastes awesome," he said.