If anyone doubts the current Riesling renaissance, just look at the latest grape production report from Washington. For the first time, the state crushed more Riesling than any other grape variety—28,500 tons, to be exact, or about 38 percent of all the state’s white wine in 2008.
That’s more Riesling than Chardonnay, more than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, the leading varieties on the red wine side.
This has been building for several years. While Chardonnay has been holding steady, Riesling has been coming on strong. From 16,500 tons in 2004 the numbers climbed to 18,800 in 2005 and to 23,800 in 2006 and 26,000 in 2007.
Why is this happening? Because Riesling has found a cadre of consumers who like it. Finally. Many of us who love the grape have wondered when it would happen. Right now, Rieslings are among the darlings of hip sommeliers, partly because they deliver plenty of class and charm at attractive prices, and these days who can resist that? I’ve always said, hand a glass of Riesling to anyone, say nothing about what it is, and you will get a smile of approval. People like the fruit flavors and the dance the wine does on their taste buds.
It just took a while to overcome that sweet-is-bad myth. Not all Rieslings are sweet, for one thing, and even the sweet ones often have class and charm.
Washington has done well with Riesling throughout its modern wine history. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates claims to produce more of it than any wine company in the U.S., distributed among its various labels. They include Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie and the most high profile of them all, the joint venture with Dr. Loosen of Germany that makes Eroica.
Hogue has been successful at hitting fine value marks with Riesling for years, especially with its Genesis bottlings. Kiona has consistently scored well with its moderately priced late harvest Rieslings. Riesling was the first wine from Mercer, the new project from some of the same folks who gave us Hogue, and it’s a good one.
Pacific Rim, the label started by Bonny Doon of California, moved its operations to Washington and now makes a range of Rieslings from inexpensive everyday dry and off-dry bottlings to single-vineyard charmers.
Poet’s Leap, the joint venture between German vintner Armin Diehl and Long Shadows, has toned down its originally sweet profile and is now making beautifully balanced wines in a soft spätlese style.
Charles Smith, who started K Vintners (for big-time Syrah) and the Magnificent Wine Co. (a value range), bottles Kung Fu Girl, a lovely dry-style Riesling for $12 a bottle.
A sweet Riesling got my highest rating from Washington in the past 12 months: Chateau Ste. Michelle White Riesling Columbia Valley Late Harvest Ethos 2006 (97, $40). These unctuous dessert wines can be stunning.
In its moderately cool climate, Washington does well with Chardonnay, too, but the Rieslings seem to represent better value. And I have a theory why: Many of Washington’s vineyards are on flat ground or gently rolling countryside in the dry climate of Columbia Valley. They need irrigation to keep vines alive; the vines grow pretty big and yields tend to be high. Few vineyards are close-spaced on challenging soils that naturally keep yields low. These make the best Chardonnays around the world, and in Washington those kinds of vineyards are more likely to grow Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah, which get higher prices to justify the extra work. Riesling gets higher yields than Chardonnay while still delivering good flavor and balance.
In that light, maybe the most intriguing new area for Riesling might be Lake Chelan, a chilly region on the eastern slope of the Cascades. The vineyards are young there, but already I’ve been impressed with Tsillan’s Riesling, which has a more Germanic range of vivid flavors and lively balance.
Riesling’s success will, I hope, boost Syrah. It is clearly Washington’s red-wine calling card, making some of the most distinctive and food-friendly reds I taste. It’s been holding steady at 15 percent of red wine production while Cabernet and Merlot both exceed 35 percent.
Sooner or later, the quality of the wines will win over American red wine drinkers, just as Riesling did on the white wine side. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s just pause to applaud the success of Riesling. At last.