Behind the scenes at Washington’s founding winery.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s founding winery and still a pioneer in creating innovative wines. Here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how that sumptuous chardonnay in your glass got there – complete with fun facts from the winemakers and vineyard managers.
The growing season
Viticulture, the science of growing grapes, covers everything from planting, to fertilization, to managing the vines, to harvesting the grapes. “The decisions we make are based in applied science, but predictability is difficult,” says Joe Cotta, Cold Creek Vineyard manager. “I have a database of successful practices from previous years – as well as the resulting acidity, sugar levels, berry chemistry and subsequent wine-quality scores – but the vines are always evolving and the weather is never the same. Even if we do the same things during each growing season, the results will be different.”
The amount of sun, water and manipulation to the vines directly influences the flavors created in the grapes during the growing season. The interactions of fruit location on the vine, vine water stress, light infiltration and the maturity of the fruit at harvest time all have great influence on the wine quality. “The challenge and art of viticulture is in manipulating the soil and vines to take the best advantage of whatever environmental conditions are present,” says Kari Smasne, Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard manager.
September through October is an exciting and celebratory time of year, when the grapes are finally ready for picking. “Hand-picking requires a large labor force and is time consuming,” Smasne says, “but it also ensures gentle handling of top-tier grapes and mindful sorting of extraneous debris. Machines are faster and technology is getting them closer and closer to the high quality of hand-picked fruit.”
Once the grapes are harvested, they go into a sorting machine that gets them ready for fermentation. In 2014, Chateau Ste. Michelle purchased an Optical Sorter, a high-tech sorter that separates out material not wanted in the fermenter in a highly efficient manner. This computerized equipment also visually scans the grapes as they go through the sorting chute. “If it’s shriveled or green, it’s kicked out,” Smasne says. “All that winds up in the fermenter is perfect fruit for perfect-tasting wine.”
This is the point when the winemaker takes over. “Our viticulturists have paid so much attention to our grapes in the field, and now it’s our turn,” Chateau Ste. Michelle head winemaker Bob Bertheau says. “It’s an amazing transformation from grapes to wine that occurs in about 10 days. We taste the fermenting wine twice a day and make adjustments to the temperature and the maceration (the process of the red wine moving through the skin). Even small adjustments can produce subtle changes in the structure of a wine.”
Blending a work of art
Every year, each of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winemakers creates a wine with their name on it. One of Bertheau’s labels is the Artist Series, a Bordeaux-style blend of his two estate red vineyards. Cold Creek, just northeast of Yakima, is one of the oldest vineyards in Washington. There’s a low crop load, and the berries are small but powerful. Canoe Ridge Estate is right on the Columbia River, with sandy soil and plenty of afternoon breezes that give the resulting wines more restraint and elegance. The wines from here tend to be a little spicier with hints of cherry. “The challenge is to showcase the harmony between the two vineyards,” Bertheau says.
It takes about two weeks of tastings and discussions among Bertheau and his winemaking team to figure out the style of wine they want to create. Before heading into a blending session (experimenting with combining different varieties of grapes), Bertheau and his team do a blind taste-testing of other similar high-tier blends to see where the new blend stands in the world, along with tasting numerous previous vintages of the Artist Series.
“You want to see where you are, where you’ve been, and then start a blending session with an idea of where you want to go,” Bertheau says. “What I look for is the perfect combination of the bright cherry tannin of Canoe Ridge with deeper, concentrated, darker flavors of Cold Creek.”
How a new wine is born
Sometimes, the creation of a new wine begins with a new partnership. “I might look at a varietal of winemaking one way, and then someone else looks at it differently and gives me a fresh view,” says Bertheau. That’s exactly what happened when Washington’s founding winery teamed up with acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Gassier and enology consultant Philippe Cambie to develop Pundit syrah, one of three varieties of Tenet Wines brand.
Bertheau and Gassier walked the Chateau Ste. Michelle vineyards, discussing the kind of syrah they wanted to make together and choosing grapes to combine in a new and interesting way.
“Michel reminded me that the whole-cluster fermentation used in his region gives a lighter, fresher style and a firmer structure to the wine than wines I had made previously,” Bertheau says. “I had used this whole-cluster fermentation in California years ago to bring out the bright, fresh flavor of pinot noir but Michel gave me the confidence to try it with the richer syrah.”
The Pundit, first released in 2013, brings together traditional Rhône style with all the attitude of the great Columbia Valley wines. Ripe cherry and plum aromas are complemented by earthy undercurrents of smoky cocoa and cola, and highlighted by traces of citrus blossom and lemon. A very smooth mouth-feel glides into a long silky finish with flavors of red cherry and blackberry, hints of toasted vanilla, and a tantalizing slate element. A great meeting of the winemaking worlds we both live in.