Chateau Ste. Michelle takes new tools into red Reserve Cellar

By on September 20, 2014
Raymon McKee leads the red winemaking team for Chateau Ste. Michelle. He spends much of his time at the company's Canoe Ridge production facility near Paterson, Wash.

Raymon McKee leads the red winemaking team for Chateau Ste. Michelle, spending much of his time at the company’s Canoe Ridge Estate production facility west of Paterson, Wash. (Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

PATERSON, Wash. – As Chateau Ste. Michelle winemakers herald the quality and record size of the 2014 harvest, and the new Reserve Cellar at the Canoe Ridge Estate red production facility has rolled out hands-free sorting equipment and fermentation tools that should keep the awards coming for lots small and large.

The company with headquarters in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville recently released one of its first wines created during its trials two years ago with the VitiSort optical sorter, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia Valley ($15) is a stunning wine at any price.

“This dedicated Reserve Cellar approach gives our winemaking team access to the best possible crush equipment and helps us maintain a small winemaking mentality for our top tier wines,” Chateau Ste. Michelle red winemaker Raymon McKee said in a news release. “The new receiving equipment and fermentation area allows us to enhance fruit expression and take wine quality to the next level.”

Walla Walla-based Key Technology produces VitiSort

The Pellenc Selectiv destemmer from Australia is designed to gently remove the grapes from the stems, leaving mostly whole berries, and the Della Toffala peristaltic pump from Italy pushes those whole berries without breaking them open.

But the VitiSort is viewed as the most important of McKee’s three new pieces of equipment, and his team began using the vibrating conveyor in 2012 to remove MOG — material other than grapes — for large lots.

Designed by Key Technology in Walla Walla, single grapes fall from the end of the conveyor into the sorter, while a high-speed camera performs 4,000 scans per second of each grape. Any unwanted material is ejected, allowing desired grapes to pass from the sorter into a hopper for delivery to the fermentation tank.

“Having a fermentation of mostly whole grapes, without any green material like leaves and stems, is critical and allows us to extract more ripe flavors out of each grape,” McKee said. “We had a chance to run trials with the new sorting equipment and the results exploded out of the glass. The wine had more fruit purity, complexity and softness.”

One of those suave wines is the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon — perhaps the state’s largest production of red wine at 305,000 cases — but the Reserve Cellar at Canoe Ridge Estate is designed for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s single vineyard and Ethos reserve wines.

“We could not be treating these grapes any better, even if we had an army of people individually picking each berry from the stem,” McKee said. “This new equipment has revolutionized the way we sort grapes and ultimately allows us to make wines that are more pure expressions of our estate vineyards.”

Chateau Ste. Michelle team using puncheons, concrete fermenters

Chateau Ste. Michelle's new Reserve Cellar at its Canoe Ridge Estate red winemaking facility has begun working with different formats of fermenters.

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s new Reserve Cellar at its Canoe Ridge Estate red winemaking facility has begun working with different formats of fermenters. (Photo courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates)

Machine harvesting factors into how Chateau Ste. Michelle can produce such a delicious bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington state at a bargain price. McKee’s team also is using new fermenters, an assortment that includes concrete and oak upright fermenters and puncheons.

“These different vessels will give us more complexities in our wines, and tools to find new expressions in our estate grapes,” McKee said.

The source for their award-winning wines begins in the vineyards, and Ste. Michelle has contracts with approximately two-thirds of the states 52,000 acres of vines. They own more than 3,500 acres in the Columbia Valley, including the 559-acre Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard adjacent to McKee’s production facility in the Horse Heaven Hills.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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