Through the years, we have given Chateau Ste. Michelle the nickname "Washington's flagship winery" -- and for many good reasons.
First, it is the state's oldest winery, with roots going back to 1934, just after Prohibition was repealed. Second, the chateau in Woodinville opened in 1976, and hundreds of thousands of people visit the winery annually, often getting their first wine-touring experience there. Third, Ste. Michelle makes great wine -- and a lot of it. Fourth, thanks to strong national and global distribution, Ste. Michelle might just be the most visible Washington winery in the world (though sister winery Columbia Crest could argue with that point).
But few wine lovers know about the wines we're reviewing today because they are pet projects by Ste. Michelle's winemaking team and usually are available only to those in the Vintage Reserve Club. All of the wines reviewed here are made in small quantities, with the Austral red blend the largest at just under 1,000 cases. Thus, they are rare because there's so little made, and distribution is extremely limited. Additionally, the "Limited Release" lineup will change from year to year as the winemakers decide to play around with something different. For example, Ste. Michelle has made a pinot noir called The Fringes, using grapes from the Columbia Gorge and the Oroville area, but that wine went away after a few vintages.
Looking for something from Ste. Michelle that is out of the ordinary? These gems alone make it worth joining the wine club, and you'll bolster your wine geek street cred by pulling one of these out at a dinner party of aficionados.
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Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Limited Release The Druthers cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $80: One of the most expensive wines produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle weighs heavily on the side of opulence too. Cold Creek Vineyard, which overlooks the Wahluke Slope and the Columbia River, supplies most of this drink filled with boysenberry, Luden's cough drops, cinnamon buns and plumminess. The tannin structure is rather fascinating with its texture of cotton ball, and there's a finish of salted caramel.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Limited Release grenache, Wahluke Slope, $25: Grapes from Tedd Wildman and his Stone Tree Vineyard make for expressive wines, and here's a hedonistic example of grenache. The aromatics are filled with strawberry fruit leather, blueberry, blackberry and Chinese Five Spice powder. In the mouth, it's akin to a handful of sweet marionberries. You can feel the juice drip down your chin, followed by black cherry candy, vanilla extract and ginger.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Limited Release Austral, Columbia Valley, $20: Ste. Michelle built its red winemaking facility west of Paterson in the mid-1990s, where this wine is crafted. It is a Southern Rhône-style blend of mourvedre (53 percent), grenache (35 percent) and syrah that opens with aromas of black cherry, cherry tomato, Nutella, black pepper ground cumin, sandalwood and a whiff of meat. Delicious flavors are found with hints of cassis, plums, blueberry, dried figs, cured bacon, chocolate, cinnamon and rice pudding. Suggested fare includes lamb, pot roast and hearty stews.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2009 Limited Release Oak Oval Gewürztraminer, Columbia Valley, $17: While their red wines are made at the Canoe Ridge facility, Ste. Michelle crafts its whites in Woodinville. Among the toys there is a small oak tank meant to add mouth feel to selected white wines. Here is Bertheau's first wine from the tank he calls "The Fuder," and there's no sacrificing acidity in this drink off the Jones Two Gun Vineyard near Quincy. Think of lemon curd, honey and yellow grapefruit as you drink this, which should pair nicely with a brat.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.