Cold stretch brings wine's just dessert

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Last week's frigid weather was more in keeping with early January normals, which feature high temperatures of around 37 and lows about 10 degrees less -- ideal for one final harvest of 2012's grape bounty.

Last week's sub-freezing temperatures provided the opportunity for those of us involved in growing and winemaking program at Walla Walla Community College to harvest our cabernet sauvignon vines at The Center for Enology and Viticulture that have been earmarked for ice wine production for each of the last two years.

These vines -- along with us -- had been patiently awaiting a stretch of sufficiently cold winter weather that would allow their fruit (protected by netting from the relentless attention of voracious birds intent on dining on them since turning red in August) to freeze and permit the crafting of a delicious dessert wine from their extraordinarily sweet juice.

This juice offers a concentrated lushness resulting from the pressing process, which separates the frozen water fraction of these grapes from the unfrozen liquid must, which is high in dissolved sugars and flavor compounds.

The yield from such a process is obviously low due to the loss of water, which normally provides considerable volume to regular table wines. Thus, many of these ice wines are quite expensive -- as much as $50 or $60 or more for a half-bottle (375ml). The good ones are worth every penny and are truly memorable for their combination of exceptional sweetness balanced exquisitely with just the right amount of acid to keep the wine from being cloying.

The picking of these grapes in the 20-degree semi-darkness of a January early morning is a much different proposition than that which occurs in late summer or fall. Hats, gloves, heavy coats and winter underwear replace the T-shirts and shorts that comprise the usual picking attire in August and September, and loads of hot coffee and frequent indoor breaks are de rigueur this time of year.

High pressure and a generally northerly flow kept most precipitation out of the area, though a little sleet and a few flakes of snow fell from clouds generated by a couple of very weak impulses that rippled through the high pressure ridge on Friday afternoon and again early Sunday morning.

But with a warmer southerly flow this week out ahead of a couple of storm systems originating in the Pacific, the ice wine harvest was certainly well-timed.

High temperatures the first part of this week will rise into the relatively balmy 40s before a cold front passing through on Wednesday returns them to more normal levels for the second half of the week.

The forecast models are having serious difficulty deciphering the mixed signals they are receiving regarding the coming weekend's weather. One of them indicates the outside chance of some accumulating snow here locally for Saturday, but another is much less robust with that particular scenario.

Both appear to agree, however, that the cold regime that will begin after Wednesday's front should continue well into next week, but the timing and intensity of low pressure systems that will affect the area remains a matter of some debate.

Meanwhile, the higher elevations of our Blue Mountains will be socked with yet another round of heavy, wet snow from the storms slated for the early portion of the week.

Winter storm warnings were hoisted there for 8-14 inches of snow above 4,000 feet, though the warmer temperatures associated with these storms will ensure a rain-only event for the Valley floor before a possible changeover to frozen precipitation following the passage of Wednesday's front.

The dearth of snow so far this winter is distressing to many of us who have been deprived of that pleasure. Having spent 30 years living in snowless coastal California before discovering the multiple meteorologic charms of Walla Walla, your Maryland-born weatherperson is thrilled to be dwelling in a place where winter snow is once again a real possibility.

He will feel terribly duped, deceived and downright cheated if the season continues in its current snowless state.

Bring on the flakes!

A lifelong fan of both the weather and the Baltimore Orioles, Jeff Popick is an instructor at the Enology and Viticulture Center at Walla Walla Community College and manages the school's teaching vineyard. Send your questions and comments to him at jeffrey.popick@wwcc.edu.

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