The Northstar leads the way!



Have a look around your circle of friends. I suppose all of them aren’t as you – into wine? Some will do an extra effort when inviting you over for dinner and find that specific wine they believe will please you, others will not. I respect both camps – it’s awesome someone likes me to that extent they’re running out buying the special bottle – but it’s just as nice to know people stick to their own preferences and perhaps only serves beer with the meal.

Then there’s the type that always sticks to safe bets. Think about it; you probably have one or two friends that always seems to pour the same brand – and are happy with that! All of us aren’t on the search for new discoveries all the time and to constantly challenge the palate. Some find it a relief when they’ve found a brand they really enjoy and hence swear their loyalty and stick to it for the rest of their vinous life.

Shocking? Boring? Well, yes – for a passionate wine lover it is but if one can’t respect different views or interests I believe the problem is not the monogamy wine drinker’s. Right?

When taking a closer look at the one brand-wine drinker it’s probably not a small boutique winery he or she has chosen as the house wine. Nor is it an unknown brand you’ve never heard of – no, it’s most likely a world leading winery in terms of production. Why? Simple, the bottle needs to be easy to pick up – today, tomorrow or in five years.

If you’re reading my text you’re probably not one of those guys – who has sworn true loyalty to one brand. Probably you’re just like me – on the constant hunt for new discoveries. But be honest to yourself; how often do you pick up a bottle from a winery producing more than a million bottles a year? Just the idea turns you off since you’re convinced that it impossibly can be as good or interesting as the small winery’s version of the same style. Prejudices?  Or are you just afraid you actually will like it?

Big guys are big for a reason and that reason is not primarily spelled marketing. Everyone has to start at scratch and to get big you need to especially strive for two goals: consistency and great value. When you’ve reached to such a level in your production marketing kicks in and if you’re good at that as well, then there’s no stop to your future success! For a wine drinker recognizing quality – but with modest interest in deepening their wine knowledge – these producer’s existance are a relief.

But does a large production automatically correlate with boring wines?

Again, the answer will most likely differ depending on who you ask. Perhaps the consistency of a successful wine has washed away a bit of a wine’s potential personality and erased vintage variations yes, but still – is that the same as dull? You don’t need to drink the wine every week – just the fact you know it’s a safe bet can be good enough a reason to every now and then pick up a bottle.

I could rephrase the question and ask you if there’s any difference of dullness in a bottle of Woodbridge signed Robert Mondavi and a Moët et Chandon Brut Impérial? Both tries to be reliable products showing consistency and – at different levels of course – some value as well. You know what you get but of course at totally different prices.

So, when’s a production too big to enjoy the passionate wine lover’s curiousness and attention?

A classified Bordeaux Chateau producing around 25,000 cases a year – is that too large? And hence boring? It’s probably easy to find and for some that might disqualify the wine.

100,000 cases then? That’s a lot – did your interest disappear now? How about a million cases then?

Think of a wine you highly regard. What if that wine had an annual production of a million cases – would you still regard it as highly?

Keeping up a quite respectable production and still be considered to be a world class wine is nothing but impressive. This is probably what has made Bordeaux Chateau’s so popular. Many of them produce 300,000 bottles of great wine every year and this brings some perspective when compared with boutique wines with a production of perhaps 5,000 bottles. To treat thousands of vines and still produce world class demands respect and can’t be disregarded. So where’s the damn limit – when a winery gets too big for the wine freaks?

4 million cases of wine per year; is that too much for you? Then stop reading here and click on my Madeira blog instead, because Chateau Ste Michelle and all its brands make it to the top ten list of the largest producers in the U.S. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is in a most unique position – two out of three bottles of wine sold in Washington state are produced by the company and they’re truly amongst the most recognized brands in the states.

Perhaps not glamorous enough for an experienced wine lover but as always – the proof is in the glass. If you buy a Columbia Crest wine from Ste. Michelle you get exactly what you expect from a successful large winery – well made wines with consistency but perhaps lacking personality. But the Washington winery tries to please all – besides the mentioned label there’s something for the more demanding as well, whether it is from the Northstar or the Col Solare where the latter is owned by Ste. Michelle and Marchese Piero Antinori together.

I do admit it here and now – after tasting through 11 wines of the company’s portfolio – that all of the wines are not to my liking. For example are the Columbia Crest labels all well-made (and at great values) but lacking what I search for in a wine. However, I do recognize their importance and believe they’re extremely important and acting as an introduction to better wines. Better in the sense that the Columbia Crest labels is a gateway when the consumer wishes to upgrade.

The upgrade might be one of Ste. Michelle’s own wines with which they try to reach the top of the region – or another of the hundred’s of wineries existing in Washington State. Interestingly, it seems like all other wineries benefit from the display window Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are for the state and there’s a good relation amongst the growers.

I was invited by the Swedish wine importer Vinunic to participate in a lunch with Sander Vriend presenting 11 of Ste. Michelle’s wines. Divided into three tastings the first line-up of wines were the following:

2008 Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling, Columbia Valley (86 points)

2008 Eroica Riesling, Columbia Valley (90 points)

2008 Chateau Ste Michelle Chardonnay, Columbia Valley (88 points)

2007 Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills (90 points)

The ordinary Riesling is a well-made wine appealing to the lieblich crowd with its slight residual sugar. White currants, coconut, a scent reminding of petroleum and lime peel. Vibrant fruit, appealing sweetness but perhaps a bit simple.

A step up was the Eroica – a wine produced together with Dr. Loosen in Mosel. Now things are starting to happen! Floral notes, wet rocks, white currants and green apples. Lovely depth. Apple peel, pure fruit and classic acidity. Good concentration with similar sweetness as the first one. I am actually quite impressed by this one.

The ordinary Ch. Ste Michelle Chardonnay is impossible not to like! Lightly toasted oak, a bit floral, pears, lime and mineral on the nose. Fine balance with mature fruit but still a dry wine (2.3 g/l), pears, oak, lime and flowers. Hard to beat at the price.

Stepping up in quality, the 2007 Canoe Ridge displays notes of green apples, hyacinth, toasted oak (vanilla, coffee) and humus. Good concentration, excellent acidity in its floral and lime peel taste. Long finish. Probably needing just a year or two in order to fully integrate the oak.

An appetizer was now served – a salmon tartar. Winner with the dish: Eroica Riesling.

Second tasting consisted of three wines:

2007 Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz, Columbia Valley (86 points)

2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot, Columbia Valley (87 points)

2007 Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley (88 points)

The Two Vines Shiraz is my least favorite in the line-up. Butterscotch, Basset’s Winegums, plums and slightly artificial. Easy-going taste with fine balance, butterscotch, violets although a bit simple.

The Grand Estates Merlot is a step up in quality and thanks to some age, it’s quite delicious to drink now. Plums, sweet licorice, humus and tobacco on the nose. Quite elegant on the palate with mature fruit, plum skin, red berries and licorice. To drink now.

The Indian Wells Cabernet shows dark color and on the nose it’s a bit rustic with scorched earth, blackcurrants, herbs and tobacco. Good fruit, a bit too sweet for my taste though, cedar, eucalyptus and creme de cassis. Quite long but i prefer the Merlot’s drinkability.

The last line-up consisted of four wines:

2007 Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills (91 points)

2006 Chateau Ste Michelle Ethos Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley (92 points)

2006 Northstar Merlot, Columbia Valley (92+ points)

2006 Col Solare, Columbia Valley (93 points)

Now we’re talking! It’s good to see an estate of these proportions also try to offer wines on a premium level. The Canoe Ridge is oozing of humus, blackcurrants, red apples, toasted oak and leather. Lots of young vivid fruit, good tannin level and concentration. The humus is there and so are the currants, nicely wrapped in toasty oak. Long finish, Needs a year or two before on the top.

The Ethos is a step up and also a more nuanced wine. Elegant on the nose with blackcurrants, licorice, wet rocks, blueberries and oak. Elegant taste with compact tannins, yet almost silky in structure, lots of fruit and balancing acidity. More approachable in style than the Canoe Ridge but will probably hold for a longer time.

My favorite of the whole tasting was the delicious Northstar Merlot. Sweet plums, pipe tobacco, licorice, red berries and integrated oak. Starting to mature. Slightly tart – in a positive way, with plum skin, tobacco, humus, oak and herbs on the palate. Long and elegant finish.

The Col Solare is a serious effort with notes of blackcurrants, eucalyptus, blueberries, warm earth and new oak. Concentrated and frightfully young, this one had tons of fruit, compact tannins and notes of blackcurrants, eucalyptus,
violets, creme de cassis and leather. Long, intense finish. In need of time. Love to try it in three or four years.

The main course was served with the last tasting and no doubt about the winner; the Northstar Merlot was a great match with the duck breast, reduction and chanterelle’s.

Briefly; Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has something for most consumers and for such a large producer it’s tough not to be impressed. Should anything negative be said about the wines it is the slightly distorted mature fruit of the wines which, for a trained European palate, might be considered too conformed. But hey, the world don’t circulate around trained or experienced tasters from Europe and who cares as long as wines like the 2006 Northstar Merlot is to be found; a wine I’ll happily drink on many occasions to come.

(Tasting provided by the Wine importer of Vingruppen. No fee.)