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Chateau Ste. Michelle Scores a Bull's-Eye
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Dec 4, 2007
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Chateau Ste. Michelle 2004 'Ethos' Syrah

Columbia Valley, Washington ($28)

Ever since I tasted my first Washington Syrah -- Columbia Crest's first, the 1994 if I remember correctly --  I have been convinced that Washington has special talent for this grape.  That wine had real complexity of aroma and flavor, of the sort that was unusual outside the Northern Rhône, and yet it boasted unmistakable New World fruitiness, with none of that cooked fruit dullness so common in California Syrahs of the day.

Syrah's ascendancy in Washington has been swift, and today so many wineries in that state make Syrah that's it's tough to take an accurate count.  (The number is certainly 100, and perhaps closer to 150.)

Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington's flagship winery, has been part of the Syrah scene since the beginning.  Its first Syrah was its 1995 Reserve.  Ethos Syrah debuted in 2003, as part of the winery's new high-end line of red and white varietals.  The currently available 2004 Ethos Syrah is an exciting entry to me not only because of its high quality but also its great value.

I sampled this wine in a blind tasting of New World Syrahs that ranged from $9 to $65 in price. The majority of the wines were 14.5 percent alcohol and many of them had roasted, overripe fruit flavors.  As a group, they carried their alcohol well, I must admit.  Even so, the Ethos stood out for its great balance.  That it is not overly dense or oaky and that it has complexity of flavor further set it apart from the pack.

This is a full-bodied, powerful red but it is also soft and approachable, with considerable ripe tannin that gives it real textural substance.  The winery's tasting notes describe the wine as 'chewy,' but to me it is much smoother than that, because its tannins are so soft.  And yet the wine has a freshening acidity.

The rich tannins can be credited to vineyards on the Wahluke slope, which account for 70 percent of the wine; credit for the acidity goes perhaps to vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, including Chateau Ste Michelle's Canoe Ridge Vineyard.

The 2004 growing season also explains the soft tannins.  It was a long season, with a warm summer but a slowdown in ripening in mid-September that gave the tannins the chance to catch up in their development before the good weather returned and ultimately harvest in early to mid-October.  Another feature of 2004 is that it was the first full vintage at Chateau Ste Michelle for the winery's impressive head winemaker, Bob Bertheau.  His red-wine goals include softer texture and increased complexity than the wines previously had, and in this first vintage of Syrah, he hit the bull's-eye.

This wine does not have an intense aroma, but there's a lot going on nonetheless.  Scents of clean, fresh fruit such as plum and blackberry predominate, with notes of mint, black pepper and charriness.  In the mouth, a meaty flavor emerges as well, and a suggestion of coffee and cocoa.  The wine's 80 percent new oak -- a blend of American, French and Hungarian --  operates totally behind the scenes.

Despite how easy it is to drink now, this wine can age nicely.  But at $28, it's priced for now.  Christmas turkey would be a good accompaniment, the rich fruity character livening up the turkey's own bland flavor. This wine can also stand up to moderately spicy dishes and to tomato sauces. 

90 points