The rise of Riesling

Western winemakers are producing some of the most sophisticated Rieslings in the world

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The wild pigs of Santa Barbara County know their grapes. On their frequent forays into the vineyards, says Bruce McGuire, winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery, they skip the Chardonnay and hit the Riesling.

Until recently, only Americans would disagree with the pigs. The rest of the wine world has always considered Riesling not just one of the world's great grapes, but the noblest white of all.

Now we're catching up. Western winemakers are making drier, more balanced Rieslings. Wine lovers are discovering that it's a fascinating wine ― not just the syrupy starter drink they remember from the 1970s and '80s ― and chefs are loading their restaurant lists with it because it goes well with more foods than any other wine. Sales of Riesling in this country grew 72 percent between 2003 and 2006, and Western growers have been planting more of the grape to meet the demand. Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle alone sends 6 million bottles of it into the world yearly.

"A mini Riesling renaissance," says Bob Bertheau, Chateau Ste. Michelle's head winemaker. That may be understating things by a mile.

A New World revival

Riesling is hardly a discovery on the West Coast. Before the early 1970s, there was more of it planted in California than Chardonnay. Riesling vines have been cultivated in the state since the 19th century, originally by the early Germans ― the Beringers, Charles Krug ― who imported their love of the wine from back home. But channeling Germany in California turned out to be a mistake. Sweet Rieslings from that cold European climate have enormously high levels of acidity to balance the sugar and keep the wine lively.

Winemakers in the warmer parts of California couldn't achieve that acidity, but made sweet wine anyway ― wretchedly flabby sweet wine. Even worse for Riesling, American palates began to go dry in the late '70s, and sweet wines fell out of favor among connoisseurs. Riesling had no chance of earning respect, and wine drinkers rushed to Chardonnay.

But about 10 years ago, things began to change. German Riesling guru Ernst Loosen noticed that Washington has some cold weather ― so cold, in fact, that winegrowers lose vines to it every few seasons ― perfect for hardy Riesling. Furthermore, he saw that Chateau Ste. Michelle was already producing fine Riesling (especially one from some of the West's few old Riesling vines, in Cold Creek Vineyard). According to Bertheau, Loosen declared that if there were going to be a Riesling renaissance in the world, it would happen in the New part.

Loosen partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle to produce "Eroica," a beautifully balanced, slightly off-dry Riesling. The partnership continues and, to this day, "Eroica" is a prototype of what the West Coast can do with the grape. Chateau Ste. Michelle now produces six different Rieslings, including a bone-dry version that was released nationally for the first time this year.

 

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