Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley (Washington) "Artists Series" Meritage 2005 ($50): In the early days of Washington's emergence as a wine region, all the talk was about the quality of its Merlot. Then somewhere along the way, some critics (including me) decided that the state's Cabernets were more impressive. Well, this wine, a blend of 57% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon (along with 5% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec) might put to rest any arguments about which is Washington's better variety: It might prove that the best is a blend of both.
The 2005 is the thirteenth vintage of Chateau Ste. Michelle's Meritage, its most elite red wine, first produced in 1993. It also happens to be the first year in which the wine contains more Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Bob Bertheau believes that "2005 will go down as one of Washington's more powerful vintages," and he therefore upped the ante on the Merlot in this wine to soften the blend in a big year.
Bertheau's vision of his Artists Series wine is to sculpt rich, powerful Washington fruit into a complex wine that's not quite so fruit-forward and obvious as a Washington wine might otherwise be--and he admits that this was "quite an endeavor" in the powerful 2005 vintage. The wine can theoretically come from any of Chateau Ste. Michelle's grapes, whether estate fruit or purchased, but typically most of the wines in the blend are from the winery's own vineyards. If a wine seems destined for this blend, Bertheau will often shorten the maceration time a bit to achieve more elegant tannins. The wine is a combination of ambient-yeast and inoculated fermentations. In 2005, 53% of the wine aged in new oak and 47% in once-used barrels, both French and American in origin.
To my palate, Bertheau has achieved precisely the style he sought--the vintage notwithstanding. One of the aspects of the wine that I really enjoy is that it is fairly restrained in its aromas and flavors, and in that sense is somewhat in the style of a structure-dominant Bordeaux wine. Along the same lines, it expresses minerally aromas and flavors such as lead pencil and ink, more than fruitiness. Which is not to say that it is devoid of fruity aromatics, because it boasts concentrated aromas and flavors of dark plum and small dark berries.
The wine's flavors--the minerality and the fruit flavors, the toasty character of oak, a chocolatey Merlot note, a touch of cedar--exist within a fairly full body and a velvety texture, and they carry long in your mouth, ending in a finish of concentrated cassis. The total effect is not powerful as much as it is harmonious. I dislike using the word 'elegant' because it is overused, and what does it mean anyway? But this wine is elegant in its expression; it has finesse, it's sophisticated, it keeps you thinking as you drink it.
I can easily imagine this wine drinking beautifully ten years from now (in fact, Bertheau says the 1998 is now showing very well), but I would not hesitate to open a bottle for a special occasion this year, decanting it for aeration. It deserves large Bordeaux-style glasses to showcase its splendid texture and complex flavors.
I failed to mention that this year's labels--three in all--feature the art of Northwest artist Bobbie Burgers of British Columbia. The winery's collaboration with local artists is an admirable aspect of the Artist Series Meritage program--but, forgive me, I find the wine itself so compelling that it dominates my comments. I will add one afterthought, however: at $50, this wine is finer than many that sell for twice as much!