The deal would mark Chateau Ste. Michelle's second joint venture with a prominent European wine company. Earlier this year, the Washington winery and Antinori of Tuscany introduced the first red wines from their Col Solare collaboration. But that wine is based on Cabernet Sauvignon, a popular variety that commands far more respect in the United States than Riesling.
"I have long believed that a Riesling resurgence was inevitable," said Allen Shoup, president of Stimson Lane, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle. "It hasn't happened yet, but when the New World discovers this grape, watch out."
Ernst Loosen, owner of the German winery, became intrigued by several Chateau Ste. Michelle wines he tasted at the home of his distributor in Portland, Ore. He visited the winery and -- after tasting through Ste. Michelle's wines, including some experimental bottlings -- approached Shoup about giving the partnership a try.
"When Dr. Loosen said he wanted to work with us, we leaped at the opportunity," Shoup said.
Loosen and Erik Olsen, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle's white wines at the Woodinville winery, will create two single-vineyard wines from the Columbia Valley this year. One will be a dry wine from Cold Creek Vineyard; the other, a supersweet dessert wine from a vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.
"Certain vineyard sites had real character," said Loosen, who is also a part-owner of J.L. Wolf in the Pfalz region of Germany. "Cold Creek reminded me very much of a vineyard we own in the Pfalz, called Pechstein, and it turns out they both have the same kind of basalt volcanic soil. It had the most character of any wine in Ste. Michelle. We started to talk about making a 'grand cru' dry style from it. I think it will be an austere, charismatic, dry Riesling like what you get from southern Germany, Alsace or Austria, with more minerality than what they usually get in Washington."
For the dessert wine, Loosen wants to aim for the sweetest, most concentrated wine possible, one that would qualify for the trockenbeerenauslese designation in Germany. Chateau Ste. Michelle has made late-harvest Riesling reserve bottlings that consistently score in the low 90s ("outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), but Loosen is convinced that can be topped.
"There's a spot where they get very high botrytis levels," he said. "We'll get 10 or 15 pickers to hand-select what we need to make a really great TBA-Essencia style. It has to be by hand. You can't make such a wine with machine harvesting."
Loosen and Olsen will make their first Rieslings together starting with the 1999 vintage. "If we're happy with the wines, we'll release them next year," said Loosen. "Otherwise, we'll see what happens when we manage the vineyard from pruning all through the year."
In other Chateau Ste. Michelle news, Ron Bunnell has joined the company as head winemaker for red wines, overseeing the River Ridge winery in the Columbia Valley. Bunnell previously worked for Kendall-Jackson Winery in California.
For Harvey Steiman's most recent Washington tasting report, check the Sept. 30 issue, on sale now.
For recent ratings of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Weingut Dr. Loosen wines, check the Wine Search.
To find out more about Chateau Ste. Michelle's Col Solare venture:
For recent news about Dr. Loosen:
To learn more about German wines: