Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the largest and most revered wineries in America. Located in Washington's Columbia Valley, Chateau Ste. Michelle is often -and mistakenly- overlooked by oenophiles searching for fine American wine. It isn't often that one gets to "talk shop" with the winemaker from a winery of the caliber of Chateau Ste. Michelle -they tend to be awfully busy people after all- but IntoWine.com had the good fortune of being able to do just that. What follows is our chat with Chateau Ste. Michelle Winemaker Bob Bertheau.
What advantage does the climate and terroir of Columbia Valley bring to winemaking?
Quite a few distinct unique advantages to growing grapes in the Columbia Valley of Washington [exist]:
- Great northern latitude so we get a nice combination of warm, long summer days for good ripening BUT more importantly we get very short cool October days that allow for very nice end of season 'hangtime' to ripen the grapes without sugar accumulations going out of sight as well as holding our natural acidity and structure.
- Glacial swept soils that are generally very sandy and make the vines "struggle" for their existence, making for concentrated grapes with easy to control canopies.
- Very little rain during the growing season, allowing for more consistent harvests. We generally don't talk about a harvest being "good" or "bad", more about the harvest "personality."
What unique challenges does it pose?
- With the shorter, cooler days into late October, [there is] always a chance of the "storm doors" opening, allowing for angst towards the end of every season. One eye on weather.com and the other on how many tons of Cab (latest ripening variety) are left.
- Cold winters that can cause winter injury to susceptible varieties in susceptible locations.
- Slightly isolated, "pioneer" spirit is both a challenge AND an advantage in my estimation.
You spent 16 years as a wine maker in Sonoma prior to coming to Chateau Ste. Michelle. What are the noteworthy differences that separate the two regions for winemaking?
The "winemaking" differences between California and Washington are minimal. Same choices of equipment, barrels, yeast options etc. etc. Slightly more isolated but almost all the differences lie in the vineyards.
- Much cooler Octobers allow for softer tannins on later varieties (Cab most notably) and better acidities on many whites (especially Rieslings) and reds without excruciating high alcohols at times.
- Virtually all vines still on their own rootstocks-- in my estimation, a more "natural" plant. Phylloxera has major trouble with our sandy soils and very cold winters.
- Larger, more contiguous vineyards as growers can afford to have larger parcels with the cost of land being so much less in Washington compared to California.
- A corollary to the above - we have a distinct advantage of fruit costing much less to grow and purchase with excellent quality throughout the Columbia Valley, making Washington wines a great "value choice" in many categories.
- I can potentially make Ice Wine up here (and have 2 of my 4 harvests)........something I couldn't dream of in California!
Ste. Michelle has joint ventures with the Antinori family of Italy as well as Mosel winemaker Ernst Loosen. Share with us the results of these partnerships:
Washington is still a very young wine industry. To have two of the most prestigious winemaking families in their respective old world countries (Germany and Italy) think enough of our grapes and our company to want to make wine with us is flattering and daunting at the same time! We admit we still have a lot to learn about grapegrowing and winemaking in Washington, and to have the history and expertise of the Antinoris and Loosens has been eye opening and very fun. They certainly are still learning about Washington viticulture as well, but they also make their distinctive mark on the wines they are involved with. Ernst Loosen says all the time he doesn't want to make a Mosel wine in Washington, rather utilize our strengths and palates to make a wine that is distinctly Washington, but with old world styling and sculpting. Not having made much Riesling in California, it was a blessing to have Ernie as a Riesling mentor as I started my Washington winemaking adventure in 2003.
As Ste. Michelle is one of the top wineries in America, I'd like to give our visitors a chance to learn about your wines. Please share with us some of your thoughts on the following Ste. Michelle varietals:
Merlot - Structure at the core, yet still lots of fruit and balance, Merlots tend to be "bigger" wines than the Cabernets - something that perplexes some, but it is a combination of the early heat, weak soils and careful irrigation that can give Ste. Michelle Merlots this great combination of structure and fruit.
Cabernet Sauvignon - Jammier, fleshier wines because of the nice late season 'hangtime', I like the concentration and weight of Ste. Michelle Cabernets, but crafted in a slightly softer style than the Merlots. They are great blending partners, however. I almost always have a little Cab in the Merlots and vice versa. They complement each other beautifully here in Washington.
Chardonnay - VERY sight specific on styles we make here at Ste. Michelle.
- Canoe Ridge Estate (single vineyard) Chard is light, crisp, complex (Horse Heaven AVA right on the Columbia River).
- Cold Creek (single vineyard) Chard is concentrated and very intense with lots of lemon and a good dollop of oak for structure.
- Indian Wells Chard is mostly from the Wahluke Slope, which is our warmest Chard region, making a tropical, opulent style of wine.
Ethos - My little Burgundian model for Washington state, with more natural fermentation, giving loads of complexity and interest.
Riesling - Our #1 selling variety, also sight specific for styles.
- Eroica - Coolest climate, highest elevation sites for crisp, mineral and lime style.
- Cold Creek (single vineyard) - Warmer, intense, more tropical side of Riesling.
- Columbia Valley - Great "middle ground" Riesling with warm elements of pear and white peaches, in a wonderful balanced easy to drink style.
Ste. Michelle is a leader in viticultural research. In what ways has this access to the latest in wine science impacted the quality or production of your wines?
Almost every lot we bring in has some kind of experiment attached to it. Many of these are utilizing state of the art viticultural advances including "eyes in the sky" pictures of vineyard to help delineate quality spots in a vineyard as well as state of the art irrigation trials, clonal trials, varietal trials, trellising techniques....the list goes on and on.
We are in our infancy in understanding the best combination of all of the above for each vineyard site in Washington. But with such amazing tools at our disposal, we are learning fast! A fun, educational trip that should help my grandkids make better wine in the future. We have a long way to go to catch up to the Antinori's 23 generations of winemaking in Italy.....but we have to start somewhere!