Chard Reconfigured

Among the many perks that go with my job, probably the most valuable is the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with leading winemakers and taste their new releases, hear what they were trying to accomplish with each bottling, and ask questions about what I'm tasting (or not tasting). At this year's Taste Washington Education Day on Saturday, April 9, anybody with $45 and an hour to spare can have such an experience—much the same one I just had this week, in fact—tasting through five newly released Washington state chardonnays crafted by Chateau Ste. Michelle's head winemaker, Bob Bertheau. Bertheau came to Ste. Michelle in June of 2003, but he's already had an immense effect on the winery's white-wine program, from the company's "basic" $13 chard, made by the hundreds of thousands of cases, to small-production, $30-and-up reserve bottlings (to be released in the future under the Ethos label). Bertheau's program for his 2003 vintage can be summarized in one word—"less": less prominent oak flavors, less hasty fermentation, a less oily or buttery California-style mouthfeel. The result of the new approach is obvious even in the $13 Columbia Valley chard, which receives an extraordinary amount of attention for a mass-market wine: long barrel fermentation, periodic stirring while aging on the spent yeasts for six months to enrich and integrate flavor. This is definitely a New World product, but one that even a European palate could enjoy simply as "a glass of chard." This label has been a consistent winner of "best buy" notices in the past; with its racy new styling, the 2003 edition is sure to earn more. Another goal for the '03s was to differentiate Ste. Michelle's chardonnays more clearly, emphasizing the different qualities of fruit from warm and cool sites through winemaking and aging. For an amateur taster, this is most well defined by the '03 Ethos, created according to the same overall guidelines but from the top 1 percent of all Ste. Michelle's chardonnay acreage, aged in wood for nine months, and bottled unfiltered to maintain the highest possible concentration of fresh flavor. Those taking Bertheau's "seminar" at Taste Washington will also experience how humbling it can be for a mere amateur to taste wines with their creator. Ste. Michelle's three single-vineyard chards—from Indian Wells ($17; 20,000 cases), Canoe Ridge ($20; 5,500 cases), and Cold Creek ($22; 3,800 cases)—are sharply individual, but a nonprofessional palate like mine soon gives up when tasting them side by side. All are fine wines and outstanding for their price. "If I were trying to make wine for this price in California, I couldn't do it," says Bertheau. "We can buy fruit for $700 a ton here. Where I used to be in Sonoma, it would be $1,800 for comparable fruit." Lucky us. Lucky you, if you take the opportunity to hear Bertheau wax eloquent on his own wine. With him as a guide, you almost feel you can taste all the subtleties he can. rdowney@seattleweekly.com Taste Washington Education Day: Sat., April 9, Bell Harbor International Conference Center. Bertheau's "This is No Ordinary Chardonnay" seminar will be held twice, at 9:30 a.m. and at 2:15 p.m. Individual seminars $45; for a full schedule and information on how to purchase, go to www.tastewashington.org.

 
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