Chateau Ste Michelle
Part 7, Washington State: visiting one of North America's leading wine growing regions

Bob Berthau, director of winemaking Chateau Ste Michelle

One of the distinctive features of Washington State is the dominance of one large company: Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which in turn is owned by tobacco company Altria (previously known as Philip Morris). The most famous name in the portfolio is Chateau Ste Michelle, closely followed by Columbia Crest. Other wine brand include Col Solare, North Star, 14 Hands and Spring Valley.

This dominance reflects the history of winegrowing in the state. The company began as the National Wine Company in 1934, and this then merged with the Pomelle Wine Company to form the American Wine Growers back in the 1950s. In 1967 famous Californian winemaker André Tchelitscheff joined as a consultant, and a new name, Ste Michelle Vintners, was adopted for wines made by them exclusively from vinifera varieties.

In 1976 the winery moved to Woodinville and the name changed to Chateau Ste Michelle. The dominance of Ste Michelle Wine Estates is reflected in the fact that they buy around two-thirds of Washington State's production of vinifera grapes (there's still quite a bit of Concord, an American non-vinifera variety grown here). Among other things, they are the world's biggest producer of Riesling. In 1999, by a stroke of genius, Ste Michelle began a collaboration with Ernest Loosen from Germany's Mosel, to create Eroica. It's an affordably priced high quality Riesling that has done a lot to raise the profile of Washington State as a Riesling producer.


'Riesling is the number one variety in the region,' says Ste Michelle director of winemaking, Bob Bertheau, explaining why they began their hugely influential and successful collaboration. 'The idea of Eroica was to try to bring up the idea of American Riesling.' Further collaborations have taken place in the state, including Col Solare, which is a Ste Michelle-owned partnership with Piero Antinori, and also the Long Shadows winery set up by ex-Ste Michelle boss Allan Shoup, where each of the wines is a collaboration with a famous winemaking consultant.


We tasted a selection of the Ste Michelle wines with Bob Bertheau, who is Seattle-born and has been winemaker here for 12 years.  

One of our discussions was about alcohol levels. 'Most years, 14.5-15% alcohol seems to be the right place  for our style of tannin,' he says. 'It is pretty rare to add acid to our reds. It would take a really ripe year and a pH of over 4.' Water additions are permitted in Washington State, and he allowance is very generous: you can add as much as you like, as long as you don't take the juice below 22 Brix. 'We do some water backs if the sugars get out of control,' Bertheau admits. 'But we also saignée out the equivalent volume.' The water added is acidified. Watering back is common in the state. 'The regulation is that you can't go below 22 Brix which is ridiculously low.' Bertheau thinks that there is a style change happening, which is for the good. 'Winemakers and critics together are moving away from the high alcohol sweet fruit style.' 


Eroica Riesling 2013 Washington State, USA
Very lively, bright, fresh and delicate with pure lemon and lime fruit. There's a hint of honey and some subtle melon richness. Very pure and direct. 91/100

Chateau Ste Michelle, Ethos Reserve Chardonnay 2013 Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA
1800 case production, $40 retail. Very rich aromatics with fine toasty, bready notes. Generous, broad palate with fine vanilla, bread and toast notes. Polished and stylish, showing appealing pear and fig. 90/100

Chateau Ste Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot 2012 Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State, USA
10% Cabernet Franc is used to add softness. Sweet, ripe and a bit chocolatey with lush berry and chery fruit. Ripe with some spiciness. Sweet, modern, fruity and lush. 88/100

Chateau Ste Michelle, Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA
Sweet, ripe, chocolatey. Very rich and seductive  with some cedar and vanilla notes. Good concentration of ripe, soft, textured fruit. A crowd pleaser. 88/100

Chateau Ste Michelle, Artist Series Meritage 2006 Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA
Vivid, sweet, spicy blackcurrant fruit nose. Supple, sweet, pure black fruits palate. Lovely intensity of sweet, focused fruit showing nice definition. Primary and quite ripe but with some grip and hints of gravel and tobacco leaf. 92/100

Tenet 'The Pundit' Syrah 2013 Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA
This is a new project with Michel Gassier and Philippe Cambier (of Châteauneuf du Pape). It's aged in a mix of new and old French oak and new American oak (16%). pH 3.94, 1% Viognier (cofermented) and 3% Grenache. Roast coffee, meat and spice nose with sweet, lush black fruits. Fresh but ripe with a chocolatey edge and nice structure to the black fruits. Seductive, lush and polished. 90/100

Chateau Ste Michelle, Ethos Reserve Late Harvest Riesling 2013 Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State, USA
Lush, sweet wine with jelly, apricot, peach and citrus flavours, some spiciness and keen acidity. Viscous and textured with delicious complexity. 92/100

Columbia Winery
De Lille
WT Vintners
Savage Grace
Chateau Ste Michelle
Andrew Will
Airfield Estates
Milbrandt Vineyards
Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
Col Solare
Powers/Badger Mountain
J Bookwalter
Pacific Rim
Gordon Estate
Long Shadows
Seven Hills
Charles Smith
Geology with Kevin Pogue
Woodward Canyon
Gramercy Cellars
L'Ecole No 41
Columbia Crest
Memaloose/Idiot's Grace
COR Cellars

Wines tasted 06/15  
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