Bob Bertheau, senior director of winemaking at Chateau Ste Michelle, reveals the Chardonnay producers who have inspired his own effort to show how this grape variety expresses itself in Washington state.
What factors, in your view, make the difference between good Chardonnay and great Chardonnay?
Attention to detail both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Chardonnay is such a “sculpted” wine, that any change or difference you find from the vineyard, the vintage or winemaking technique can really change your style. A vision from day one is truly required for a great Chardonnay, and that vision has to carry from the vineyard through the cellar to the bottle.
What makes Chardonnay from Columbia Valley distinct from other expressions of this variety around the world?
We have a really interesting juxtaposition of New World early season warmth with Old World later season cold, which allows us to get to beautiful ripeness yet retain some beautiful natural acidity in our cooler spots. The problem with trying to “typify” Columbia Valley Chardonnay is that it encompasses so many different climates and sub-AVAs that it can totally change from one location to another. Going from warm Wahluke Slope (pineapple, tropical warmth) to Yakima Valley (lean, fresh) to Horse Heaven Hills (apple, pear and delicate balance) can give you totally different expressions. People are just beginning to discover these differences within our region.
Which regions – other than your own – are emerging today as particularly exciting sources of Chardonnay?
Having been a “Sonoma County guy” for 16 years, I am biased toward some of the ultra-cool spots of Russian River and Sonoma Coast. These spots can make some amazingly complex, interesting Chardonnays. Trailblazers such as Kistler and Flowers have made some phenomenal wines over the years.
What is it about Chardonnay that means it has such enduring global appeal?
That you can make both a wonderful, soft, easy to drink table wine under $12 as well as some of the most complex, beguiling white wines on the face of the earth that fetch hundreds per bottle. Chardonnay means different things to different wine lovers, but we can almost all find expressions that we enjoy and appreciate.
Is there a winemaker or wine whose expression of Chardonnay inspires you?
A few. I had the pleasure to taste and experience the wines of Jeremy Seysses of Domain Dujac. They are impeccable expressions of Burgundian terroir and beautiful winemaking. His wines inspired me immensely.
The old hand approach to Hanzell Chardonnays in Sonoma is always beguiling. I have to admit, this winery was my first permanent job out of UC Davis so I have a warm, soft spot in my heart for Hanzell and Bob Sessions. It is one of the few American brands where the customer just knows to put the wine away for 5-10 years, no questions asked. A rarity in our world.
One of my other mentors, David Ramey, also makes amazing Chardonnay wines from Sonoma and Carneros-Napa.
All of our wines have pieces from my past, while having our own Washington state signature.
the drinks business Global Chardonnay Masters 2013 takes place later this month. Presided over by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, rather than being judged by country each Chardonnay is assessed by style and price.