Chateau Ste. Michelle thought it had corrected the winemaking errors that held down its 2001 and 2002 red wines, but it took another step backward with the 2004 high-end reds, being released now.
The good news is that a preview tasting of the 2005s indicates that the winery will be back on track by the time those wines reach us next year. But in the meantime, consumers must negotiate a few more potholes.
Back in late 2004, when I tasted Chateau Ste. Michelle's 2001 and 2002 red wines, many of them seemed thin and green. To Ste. Michelle's credit, the brain trust noticed this before I did, and promptly promoted winemaker Bob Bertheau from his responsibilities as the brand's white wine specialist (his whites have been consistently fine) to be the chief winemaker for the flagship Chateau Ste. Michelle label.
Bertheau got the promotion after the 2003 vintage was over and the wines were in the barrel, leaving him with limited options. He worked over the 2003s to soften them up as best he could. The wines showed improved mouthfeel and the scores went up, not as high as they once were, but better.
In 2004, Bertheau's first vintage as chief, he introduced a range of winemaking choices designed to make plusher, more complex wines. The 2004s do show the kind of seductive mouthfeel that makes red wines so attractive. Unfortunately, they also show something else: brettanomyces, a yeast that makes for gamy, barnyardy flavors. It's not harmful, but not everyone has a taste for it.
In several recent wide-ranging blind tastings of Washington reds, I noticed brett in the Chateau Ste. Michelle wines so prominently that I was flagging the bottles as all from the same winery before I pulled off the bags covering their labels.
Two wines struck me as especially harmed by the brett. Gamy flavors made the Merlot Columbia Valley Ethos (the former "reserve") and the Cabernet Sauvignon Canoe Ridge unpleasant for me. In other wines, such as the Merlot Canoe Ridge, the brett shows itself as an undertone that you may not expect to find in a Ste. Michelle red but would be common in some European or California wines.
Bertheau owned up to the problem and described what he had done about it. "We have made changes in the cellar to help mitigate the growth of brett we saw in 2004," he wrote in an e-mail. Specifically, every barrel and tank is now being sanitized with ozone between rackings. "We have seen virtually no growth in 2005s, and I honestly believe this is a one-year spike."
Indeed, in a broad range of tank samples of the 2005s (waiting to be bottled), I tasted clean, vivid wines that have a distinct crispness to go along with their fleshy textures. These will be wines worth waiting for.
Among Bertheau's innovations in 2004: less intrusive yeasts, more aeration at fermentation, backing off on acid additions and sulfur treatments. It's the kind of thing wineries that make small, hand-crafted lots do. But you must monitor brett development with a sharp eye, because all of these choices can open the door for the nasty little organisms.
Bertheau attempted to downplay the level of brett in the 2004s, arguing that I noticed them only because I tasted them "alongside other squeaky clean wines," he said during a tasting comparing the 2004s and 2005s (plus some 2002s and 2003s for context). "I honestly think the wines will keep integrating over time, and I think we did get to our goal of softer, more approachable, more interesting wines."
By the time a new red wine vintage reaches the market, two or three other vintages are in the barrel. Near as I can tell, Chateau Ste. Michelle is on the right track. We just won't taste the evidence that they got it right until we get past the rocky 2004s.