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ON WINE

WONDER WINES : Since 1974, Wines From Chateau Ste. Michelle Have Been World-Class

October 13, 1985|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

It was a lucky day for me, maybe 30 years ago, when I was tasting wines with Andre Tchelistcheff, the veritable dean of all American wine experts, that he suddenly said, "Let the wine speak to you." It was more than a figure of speech.

Swirling the glass of wine before inhaling its perfume helps to release the bouquet. The bowl of a tulip-shaped classic wine glass--using the principles of aerodynamics, no less--concentrates the fragrance into an intensity that allows the liquid to communicate the nature of its essence. In short, the wine is telling you what it is.

I had occasion to listen the other day when I confronted a new wine from Chateau Ste. Michelle, that most distinguished American winery in Washington State. The wine was called, quite simply, "Columbia Crest." Even before reading the fact sheet accompanying the sample, I put my nose into the glass and inhaled deeply--to let the wine talk to me. Its floral fragrance immediately suggested Johannisberg Riesling. But there was more. What was it?

I quickly read the fact sheet and discovered that the wine was a proprietary blending of Johannisberg Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat Canelli. The wine master added small amounts of the latter two varieties, to bring in the subtle spiciness of Gewurztraminer and the round opulence of the exotic Muscat Canelli. The taste quickly proved the artistry of the blend. The wine is medium-dry, with a refreshing acidity balancing the residual sweetness. A most quaffable aperitif wine, a handsome bottling and a reasonable price ($6.95). But again, why that name?

"We created Columbia Crest," wine maker Peter Bachman says, "to characterize the Columbia Valley appellation granted in December, 1984. We borrowed that tradition from European wine districts that initiated the practice centuries ago. The results, like the Chateau-clarets from Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, are some of the world's greatest wines, labeled with the estate's name rather than (that of) the grape type."

Because of its latitude, which is the same as that of Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, the Columbia Valley receives more ripening daylight hours of sunshine--17.4 hours--than California's average 15.8 hours. A day-to-night temperature difference of 35 degrees Fahrenheit allows a long, slow, cool ripening, which makes the Columbia Valley a wonderful habitat for the vine. The small amount of rainfall in this region means that the so-called "rainbird" type of irrigation is necessary in the River Ridge Vineyard beside the Columbia River. Observed from the air, they are great, green circles--ranging from 110 to 140 acres of vines--11,000 acres in all. With this new vineyard / winery at Paterson, plus the handsome chateau headquarters just outside of Seattle in Woodinville, Ste. Michelle represents $100 million deployed since the 1960s by the owner, U.S. Tobacco.

And the other varietals? The Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnays ($8.99) in the Meursault style--gentle oak, long and silky taste, sprightly acidity--have been consistent gold-medal winners. The 1983 in current release will benefit from cellar aging. The Johannisberg Riesling 1984 ($5.99) is the steady wonder wine--direct, charming and well balanced. The 1981 Merlot ($9.50), like the 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99), also needs time to round out its wonderful inherent breed and distinction. All of these are world-class collectors' wines.

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