WSU students demonstrate how terrain affects wine taste with new Rieslings

Green rows of grapevines fill the scene before a blue lake and blue mountains in the distance.
Over 300 acres of vineyard are found along the shores of Lake Chelan, Wash.

PROSSER, Wash. – Small changes in vineyard location and geography can impact the flavor of wine. To test this, three Washington State University Viticulture & Enology students crafted two Riesling wines from grapes harvested on opposite sides of Lake Chelan.

“We wanted to understand how climatic differences affected the growth of Riesling grapes and the profiles of their subsequent wines,” said Andrew Gerow, who graduated from WSU in December of 2020.

Classmates Alex Ostrom, and Keith Pagett, and Gerow created the Rieslings from two vineyards, across the water from each other on Lake Chelan’s east end. Both sit at similar elevations, but experience different exposure to sunlight during the day.

Bright green Riesling grapes are piled on top of each other.
Riesling grapes from Tsillan Cellars, on the south shore of Lake Chelan.

“Riesling is a grape that strongly expresses the place where it is grown through its flavor,” said Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, Director of the Viticulture & Enology Program.

Wine grapes for the project were donated by Lot 75 Vineyard, which resides on the north side of the lake, and Tsillan Cellars, positioned on the south shore.

Lot 75 Vineyard owner Keith Nelson, who earned his Viticulture Certificate from WSU in 2012, said he was impressed with the students’ knowledge of crop and soil science.

“They walked up and down the vineyard rows with me and wanted to know the history of the land and the vines,” Nelson said. “I loved working with them, and I’d do it again.”

Succession Wines, also located on Lake Chelan, helped the students press the grapes before the juice was transported to the Ste. Michelle WSU Wine Science Center in Richland for fermentation.

Two white wine bottles are shown with labels for 'north shore' and 'south shore.'
The Riesling wines, north shore and south shore, are available for purchase through the WSU Wine Store. Proceeds support WSU’s Viticulture & Enology program.

“The students are getting dirty in the field and getting into what the growing process really looks like. This hands-on experience is going to set them apart,” said Succession Wines owner Brock Lindsey.

Gerow said what made this project different was setting out to create a traditional German style dry Riesling, rather than the typically sweet versions found in supermarkets.

“If we were in our own winery, we would have to make what the consumer wants,” he said. “Because we are in a school setting, we had creative freedom.”

Two men load grapes into a vat near a forklift. One is driving the forklift.
WSU V&E student Alex Ostrom and Succession winemaker and V&E graduate Devon Griffith load grapes into the press at Succession Wines.

After processing the wine at the Wine Science Center, students sampled the different Rieslings, and found the grapes grown on the north shore produced wine characterized by a fresh citrus taste and mineral notes, Gerow said.

Although they were harvested on the same day, Gerow said the wine made with grapes from Tsillan Cellars on the south end of the lake had more tropical, fruity, and creamy flavor characteristics. Because the wines ended up tasting so different, the students decided to bottle them separately.

The students presented their findings and won first place in the undergraduate research category at the Washington Winegrowers 2020 Poster Session and Graduate Student Oral Presentations.

The poster session provides an opportunity for members of the grape and wine industry to share and discuss the latest wine research at all levels of academia.

The two Lake Chelan Rieslings – north shore and south shore – are available for purchase online for delivery anywhere in the state of Washington at the WSU Wine store.