A combination of warm summer months, cool autumn temperatures and a mild winter produced a record-breaking harvest in 2005 that winegrowers...

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A combination of warm summer months, cool autumn temperatures and a mild winter produced a record-breaking harvest in 2005 that winegrowers say is as beautiful as it is bountiful.

The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers estimated Thursday that the 2005 crush would reach 116,750 tons, surpassing the previous record of 115,000 tons set in 2002.

After a frigid winter that depressed grape growing in 2004, the harvest this year bounced back 8.3 percent at the state’s vineyards, led by traditional varieties merlot and chardonnay. The state has 350 grape growers and 368 wineries.

The crush would’ve been even bigger if not for a below-average picking in some areas — the product of cooler autumn temperatures and a water shortage in the Yakima Valley.

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Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Washington’s largest winery, accounting for nearly half of the state’s harvest, said its yield was 5 percent below its crop estimate.

“As early as July we knew this was going to be a record year, but I think most vineyards actually expected their numbers to be even greater,” said Rich Wheeler, vice president of vineyards.

But the same cool temperatures that reduce the number of grapes a vine can support also routinely extend what’s known in the grape-growing business as “hang time,” which contribute to a grape’s flavor.

“This year flavors developed faster than sugars — usually it’s the opposite,” says John Vitalich, managing director of Sagemoor Vineyards, which cultivates grapes in the Columbia Valley.

As a result, winemakers are optimistic that when they uncork the first 2005 vintage bottles a year from now, they’ll be able to pucker their lips with pride.

“Our cabernet sauvignon yield was about 10 percent lower than normal, but the quality was phenomenal,” said Keith Love, spokesman for Ste. Michelle. “We think the 2005 cabs are going to turn some heads.”

The number of wineries in the state has more than doubled since 2000, to 368. The bulk of the newcomers are limited production boutique wineries that have only reached full production in the past year or so. Typically it takes 3-5 years for a new winery to reach full production, winemakers say.

Although merlot and chardonnay continue to be the most popular varieties, less-traditional grapes, such as syrah and riesling are experiencing notable gains. Ste. Michelle, for example, increased by 20 percent its riesling production in 2005, Wheeler said.

And the record numbers may not be over yet. As the first flurries fly across the state, Ste. Michelle is hopeful temperatures may drop into the teens for a few extra tons of grapes left hanging on the vine to freeze and become a sweet, dessert wine known as ice wine.

“It’s something we always play with at the end of the year,” Wheeler said.

Washington ranks second only to California in domestic wine production, with more than 30,000 acres under cultivation. The industry contributed $3 billion to the state economy last year, with retail sales reaching $685 million.

Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or jgoodman@seattletimes.com