Fifty years ago, a small winery in Washington State called Ste. Michelle Vintners introduced its first vintage of European-style premium wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yakima Valley. It was the release that inspired today’s thriving Washington wine industry. In those early days, however, few people recognised or understood the region’s potential.
“I remember being asked, wine from Washington? What side of the Potomac do the grapes grow on?” says Ted Baseler, President and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Fifty years later, no one gets the joke. Washington is now America’s second leading producer of premium wine – just behind the Napa Valley – with more than 50,000 planted acres. As the state’s founding winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle is now the second leading producer of premium domestic wine sold in the US, with wine also exported to 100 countries around the world.
Reflecting on the estate’s huge success over the past 50 years, Chateau Ste. Michelle Head Winemaker, Bob Bertheau says, “We are extremely proud to be the winery that helped create a world-class wine region and propel the explosive growth of Washington wine.”
These days, the winery is best known for its award-winning Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. However, Chateau Ste. Michelle was also the first winery to introduce international partners to Washington state. World wine luminaries sought partnerships with Chateau Ste. Michelle, including Piero Antinori of Tuscany (Col Solare), Ernst Loosen of Germany (Eroica), and Michel Gassier and Philippe Cambie of France (Tenet). The result of each of these collaborations have been wines of poise, character, and a compelling expression of two unique winemaking techniques working in harmony.
To celebrate the significant milestone, Chateau Ste. Michelle has a number of things in store, including a commemorative Cabernet bottling, special events, library wine releases, a major visitor center expansion, and their popular Summer Concert Series.
As for what the future holds, Bob Bertheau says it looks bright for both Chateau Ste. Michelle and Washington wine. “Vineyard plantings in the state are growing significantly, which will only continue to elevate the quantity and quality of Washington wine. In 2015, Washington State University opened the Wine Science Center, a state-of-the-art research and teaching institution, which will help develop future Washington winemakers and grape growers for decades to come.”
Insights from field: Cyriaque Lajoinie, Enotria&Coe Wine Specialist
What you enjoy most about Chateau Ste. Michelle’s wines?
Their diversity of flavours, texture and their originality. Washington State wines have so much to offer by having the different terroir and vision from their winemakers. Every single estate has its own way of doing things, but they all have enough infrastructure to make great wines for all palates.
Your favourite wine, and why?
In my opinion, the best red grape in the state is Syrah, it makes wines with complexity and deep fruits, with a certain class. However, my favourite wine is the Eroica Riesling – the joint venture with Dr Loosen – it captures the steeliness and freshness of the East Washington State terroir, with the extra depth of the German Riesling savoir faire.
Why do these wines work in the UK market?
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s large range of wines can fit any list – from the gastro pub with the Dry Riesling by the glass, to the fine dining restaurant with their single vineyard Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. They also work for the Independent trade, with the new additions to our portfolio (Motto Red blend and The Pundit), which are superb wines, presented beautifully.
Also, consumers are always interested in tasting wines from this state; it makes a difference from Californian wines and their prices are more competitive than others on the market.
The wine of Washington
Washington wines are characterised by their balance of New World and Old World styles, which is largely due to the region’s diverse climate and diurnal temperature shifts. Generous amounts of daytime light and heat contribute to sweet, ripe, fruit-forward flavours (New World), while cold nights make for abundant complexity and acidity (Old World). Uniquely, the state is not defined by a single grape or even a group of grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling and Chardonnay all thrive in eastern Washington. Over 40 varieties are regularly planted and experimentation continues. Indeed, it is this diversity which is a key pillar of Washington’s wine culture.