The wine-grape harvest in Washington this year was down slightly from 2003, but some winemakers are calling it one of the best for high-quality wine, despite a harsh winter. Some growers and wineries...

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YAKIMA — The wine-grape harvest in Washington this year was down slightly from 2003, but some winemakers are calling it one of the best for high-quality wine, despite a harsh winter.

Some growers and wineries entered the 2004 harvest with a feeling of uncertainty following a harsh winter freeze in January that hurt pockets of the state, particularly near Walla Walla.

But freeze damage to vineyards was nearly balanced out by new vineyard acres coming into production, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers said yesterday. The state has nearly 27,500 bearing vineyard acres and nearly 30,000 total vineyard acres.

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Wine-grape growers harvested 100,500 tons of grapes this year, down from an earlier estimate of 108,500 tons. Last year, growers harvested a record 111,700 tons.

“We did have some acreage come into fuller production,” said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the wine-grape growers group, adding that vines usually don’t come into full production until the fifth or sixth year after planting.

“We’re not seeing a huge influx of new growth in the past few years,” she said. “These are just vines that were in that are now coming into full production.”

In addition, hot weather during the growing season, followed by cooler temperatures in the fall, resulted in smaller berries with more concentrated fruit and high-quality, balanced wine, winemakers said.

“As we came into September, it was really hot, like 1998, which was a concern because we thought there would be too high of a sugar content,” said Doug Gore, senior vice president of winemaking and vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

“But we got rain and cooler weather for about two weeks, which slowed things down and really helped the white grapes a lot.”

The result was white wine grapes with good character, Gore said. Among red varieties, syrah and merlot grapes were excellent, but the “jury is still out” on cabernet grapes, he said.

“There are some really nice examples, but as a group, we just have to wait and see,” Gore said.

“Cabernet can fool you, though. They’re the last thing in, take longer to mature, take longer to ferment.”

Martin Clubb, owner and winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, saw significant loss of crops from vineyards in Walla Walla and parts of the Columbia Basin because of freeze damage but said conditions improved farther up the Columbia Valley.