There's a new kid on the block trying to compete with the top Cabernets of California. Two wineries that dominate their respective regions, Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington and Antinori of Tuscany, have teamed up to release a new wine.
Col Solare, a blend of Washington state Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, also melds Italian and American winemaking philosophies. This first joint venture between Washington and European vintners was announced only a year ago, though winemakers from both companies had been quietly producing the wines since 1995. The first two vintages of Col Solare are rolling out this month, at $70 per bottle.
In the Antinori lineup, Col Solare is priced between Tignanello ($51) and Solaia ($90). In Chateau Ste. Michelle's portfolio, it is the most expensive product, priced in the same range as such California Cabernets as Beringer Private Reserve and Joseph Phelps Insignia.
The heads of the two companies defend the wine's high price. "We like to say we're less than Dominus or Opus," Chateau Ste. Michelle president Allen Shoup said with a sly smile, referring to two prominent California-French joint ventures.
Piero Antinori, president of Antinori, added, "If you go lower [in price], you send the message that it's not as good as the wines we know."
In the Wine Spectator tasting room, the 1996 rated 92 points for its supple texture, rich, ripe flavors, impressive length and a sense of subtlety and restraint. The 1995, a leaner vintage, rated 89 points. It shows less opulence and more red fruit character, despite the presence of 2 percent Syrah in the blend. Both wines integrate their oak flavors seamlessly, displaying more fruit than oak.
The wine reflects differences from the way things are usually done at Chateau Ste. Michelle, said winemaker Mike Januik. The grapes are macerated longer before fermentation, producing a smoother texture, and the vineyard yields are reduced. "The vineyards are cropped 2 tons to the acre," added Januik. "We usually get about 3 to 4."
The grapes come from the Horse Heaven Hills, which separate the Columbia River from the Yakima Valley. Antinori and Renzo Cotarella, general manager of Antinori, homed in on that site for its distinctive character in 1995, a year in which a winter freeze had naturally shortened the crop.
The Col Solare venture produced 900 cases in 1995 and 2,800 in 1996. Subsequent vintages have higher volumes and more Syrah in the blend. Future plans include designating an existing vineyard or planting a new vineyard for the wines and eventually building a new winery.
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