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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

Washington wine grape harvest led by Riesling

Look out Chardonnay. Washington's got a new top wine grape variety.

A record year for wine grape production in the state in 2008 was led by Riesling grapes, which surpassed Chardonnay as the top variety, according to the Washington Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The state harvested 145,000 tons of wine grapes, up 14 percent from 2007 and 21 percent from 2006.

"Riesling has become the hottest white wine varietal in the U.S.," said Keith Love, vice president for communications and corporate affairs at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville.

The company is the country's leading producer of Riesling, making more than 800,000 cases a year, he said.

There were 28,500 tons of Riesling grapes produced in the state last year, compared with 28,000 tons of Chardonnay grapes, according to NASS. That's about a 10 percent increase in Riesling over 2007.

"Ever since 2005, Riesling has been taking a shot at taking Chardonnay's crown away. And barely this year, she's done it," said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

The "sweet but sharp" wine has gained so much popularity in part because it pairs well with many foods, Love said.

Scharlau, who said with a laugh she can't eat tamales without some Riesling, called the record production "fabulous news" and cited a "strong finish to the harvest."

The association does its own crop and crush estimates, both of which were slightly lower than the NASS numbers.

Scharlau also attributes the record crop to a strong showing by younger grape vines.

"Those babies really came into their own and did a great job," she said.

Cabernet Sauvignon was the top red variety, with 26,100 tons of the grapes produced last year, according to NASS. That's up about 20 percent from 2007.

Prices growers received for their crops also were up last year, to a record high average of an estimated $1,030 per ton for all varieties, according to NASS.

Scharlau said the WAWGG board for the first time last year factored in cost of production increases when putting together price suggestions.

The $1,030 is an average and therefore easily skewed by extremely high or low prices, Scharlau said, but overall prices are trending upward and allowing growers to cover their costs.

Love and Scharlau said they didn't expect the down economy to have a negative effect on the state's grape production.

"We're planting more vineyards," Love said. "The economy has clearly got people nervous, and you will see for a year or two people buying ... value wines. But we're bullish on the wine business."

Scharlau added that because Washington is known for its well-priced wines, the state's industry should do well as people cut back on the amount of money they spend on wine.

"I think this is the perfect time for Washington wine to shine," she said.