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Washington giant sharpens export focus

After joining forces with a new UK partner, Chateau Ste Michelle is ready to step up its export drive and believes Riesling represents one of Washington State’s strongest suits.

Chateau Ste Michelle’s French-inspired winery in Woodinville

With Washington State’s two largest brands, Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest, in its portfolio, the group currently makes a total of 8 million cases annually. Just 5% of this is sold abroad at the moment, although with a presence in 130 countries, the producer claims to be the fifth largest US wine exporter.

“We can be the small, niche player from Washington State or the big US producer,” Chateau Ste Michelle’s division manager for Europe Sander Vriend told the drinks business as he outlined the “very attractive potential” to develop this side of the business further. By way of example, he noted: “We’re the largest US supplier to the German on-trade and independent sector but we only sell 30,000 cases there.”

As for the challenges that have prevented an earlier breakthrough, Vriend remarked, “It’s sometimes a disadvantage to be in Washington State. If you look at the shelves, people speak of France, Italy or California, but that’s wrong, it should be the US. If you look at a company like Majestic there’s not even a Washington State segment in store unless it’s a flagship – what’s that about?”

Commenting on Chateau Ste Michelle’s progress in the UK, where the group recently moved its brands to Enotria, Vriend remarked: “We’ve always had a challenge in finding the right partner. We have several brands in our portfolio and we want them positioned in the right way.”

In particular, he commented: “There’s always been a prevailing gospel that £10-£15 doesn’t exist from the US, but it’s a segment where we’re extremely strong. There’s a development we’re seen from the UK in recent years with demand for more wine from the US so we have made the perfect match with the right distributor in the right market at the right time.”

Bob Bertheau, senior director of winemaking at Chateau Ste Michelle

Chateau Ste Michelle’s senior director of winemaking Bob Bertheau highlighted one reason that Washington State brands are so well placed to fill this poorly served price point for the US. “Our land prices and grape prices are way lower than for the equivalent quality site in California so we’re able to spend more money on the other side of the winemaking process,” he explained. “Sometimes at the £10-15 level you can’t afford to put your wine in decent barrels.”

These export ambitions are backed up by what Bertheau described as “a nice little sizzle” within Washington State’s wine industry. “There’s been nothing but growth right now, both in hectares and the number of wineries,” he reported, noting that since he started at Chateau Ste Michelle in 2003, the number of wineries in the state had expanded from around 250 to nearer 850.

Despite this rise, Bertheau observed that the state still struggled to communicate its identity as a wine region. “There are two stereotypes,” he remarked. “One, that we’re making wine on the Potomac [Washington DC], or that we’re making it in the rain in Seattle. The third challenge now is to look at the differences between the regions and varieties growing there.”

For Château Ste Michelle, the main viticultural focus lies in Horse Heaven Hills AVA near the Columbia River, although the company’s joint venture with the Antinori family, Col Solare, is based in Red Mountain AVA, the warmest sub-region of Columbia Valley, but whose desert climate brings cold nights too.

With a broad range of grape varieties to offer, the Chateau St Michelle team believes that, despite large plantings of Chardonnay, Riesling is Washington State’s strongest white wine proposition.

Eroica Riesling, a joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle and Ernie Loosen

“Riesling still has to be the front-loaded white for us. It’s a story our neighbours don’t have,” insisted Bertheau. Referring to the group’s Eroica joint venture with Mosel producer Ernie Loosen, he outlined, “Ernie and I are looking to find that perfect Washington Riesling: something with a little less stone fruit and more citrus.”

In addition to the off-dry style of Eroica, Bertheau noted that the Washington State climate offers ideal conditions for botrytis to form and then, crucially, to dry out, for the creation of trockenbeerenauslese expressions. Meanwhile the producer has been able to make an ice wine five times in the last 12 years.

“It shows that Washington State can do so many styles,” he remarked. “How many places could do that and still make a great Cabernet Sauvignon too?”

From a commercial perspective, Vriend echoed this praise for the variety’s potential, saying: “There’s a huge opportunity for Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling, especially in the segments we are looking at.” Even in one European market that has no shortage of its own Riesling production, he forecast: “This year we will sell 100,000 bottles of Columbia Crest Riesling in Germany.”

For Bertheau, Riesling’s potential lies both in the appeal he sees it having among “the younger demographic” and also the fact that “it’s a real sommelier thing.” He claimed that one Michelin starred Indian restaurant in London already sells 1,000 bottles of Eroica a year.

As for red grapes, while Cabernet Sauvignon dominates plantings and Bertheau praised the state’s Merlot as “very unique”, he has particularly high hopes that Syrah will win greater consumer recognition.

“Cabernet and Merlot are very good in the right spot, but Syrah is amazing wherever it’s grown,” he enthused. “I do believe that in the long run Syrah will thrive.”

For the moment, however, this longed for Syrah trend is yet to materialise, with Bertheau reporting: “The thing that keep Syrah in the ground while people are waiting for the market to come back is the red blend category. Syrah plays so well with other varieties.”

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