Wallet-Friendly Wine

Our hunt for great-tasting affordable wine.

Washington Wine Battle: Columbia Crest vs. Chateau Ste. Michelle

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When pondering wines made in the U.S., the mind will often jump to California and comfortably settle in. While it's true that the Golden State produces around 89% of American wine by volume, there are plenty of other U.S. wine producing regions worth checking out.

Last year, SE Drinks editor Maggie Hoffman visited Washington State during the grape harvest and tried a few excellent bottles. Today, we've lined up a budget wine battle featuring a few Washington wineries you've likely heard of before.

In total, Washington State produces around 4% of America's domestic wine. But what the northwest state lacks in volume, it makes up for in enchanting wine region names. Yakima. Walla Walla. Red Mountain. Horse Heaven Hills. Rattlesnake Hills. Wahluke Slope. Lake Chelan. Snipes Mountain. These AVAs (American Viticultural Regions) are encompassed in the macro-region called Columbia Valley, which is where 99% of Washington State's wine grapes are grown.

We tried a few popular and widely-available Columbia Valley-sourced
bottles from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest Grand Estates (both part of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates collective). We tasted our way through the Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from both lineups. As for price, you can usually find Columbia Crest for around $10, whereas the Chateau Ste. Michelle is closer to $14. But are the extra few dollars worth it?

Best Chardonnay: Columbia Crest

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While the Chateau Ste. Michelle Chard was sort of all over the place—there was an initial hit of butter flavor cut with bitterness toward the end—the Columbia Crest was much smoother. After the first sip of the Columbia Crest, there was a collective sigh from our tasters, as in "okay, this is more like what we'd expect." This wine had a milky, creamy scent, but the oaky side was kept almost-in-balance by lemony acidity. Feel free to drink this Chardonnay on its own, but crab legs with ample butter or chicken and cream sauce would be delicious with it.

Best Merlot: Chateau Ste. Michelle

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Washington State is known for its merlot (along with syrah and cabernet), though it suffered from the Sideways effect—that's right, some people actually stopped buying merlot for awhile because Paul Giamatti's character said it wasn't cool. We found that the Chateau Ste. Michelle beat out Columbia Crest in the merlot category, mostly because of the difference in their oak treatment.

The Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot reminded us of fresh red cranberries and orange zest, with more earthy, savory flavors coming through at the end of each sip. We'd happily drink this with turkey or salmon. The Columbia Crest version seemed much sweeter, and the aggressive oak flavors reminded us of cherry vanilla cola.

Best Cabernet: Chateau Ste. Michelle

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There's actually more cabernet grown in Washington State than merlot, and we've tried some delicious higher-end bottles. But both the Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet and the version from Columbia Crest were a little disappointing. Both seemed relatively sweet for Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Chateau Ste. Michelle had a little smokiness that kept it interesting. I would give this wine some good swirling before you dive in, to let the maraschino cherry turn more toward ripe, bing cherry. Keep some salty cheese handy (think aged Gouda) to help this wine perform well.

What do you think about Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle? Have you tried these wines or any of their other bottles? Got any other budget wine recommendations from Washington State? Let us know in the comments section.

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

All wines were provided as review samples for review consideration.

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