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.

 

No "bangles and paint"

At its best, Riesling is crisp and transparent but richly textured, with delicate green apple, white peach, and lime flavors or riper apricot, nectarine, and mandarin, along with a pleasant minerality that can only be described as "wet stones" and one other quality that can't be described at all. Or at least not in appealing terms. Variously compared by struggling wine writers to diesel fuel, kerosene, even Vaseline, the petrol-like aroma sounds horrifying, but you know the minute you stick your nose into a glass of well-balanced Riesling that it's a good thing.

Today, some of the most interesting Rieslings come from artisanal winemakers in the West's coldest pockets: Oregon's Willamette Valley, western Sonoma County, and parts of Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties. And in particular from Mendocino's Anderson Valley ― the coldest wine region in California. Here, Josh Chandler of Lazy Creek Vineyards and some of his neighbors are producing Rieslings with racy acidity, from bone-dry (Chandler's) to off-dry to "stickies" (late-harvest dessert versions).

Standing behind the corner tasting bar that shares space with barrels in his cozy wine barn, Chandler explains Riesling's allure over that of other white wines: "A sophisticated woman has always been considered more beautiful than a duded-up one. Bangles and paint" ― by which he means the heavy wood generally applied to Chardonnay here and the in-your-face spices and flowers of Gewürztraminer ― "are pleasant for a while, but reserved, elegant Riesling is classy at any time."

 

Sweet, dry, and made for food

There are still a few obstacles to Riesling's rise. The biggest one is that for the average wine consumer, Riesling can still be confusing. It goes back to sugar again.

The three European regions that supply the grape's great pedigree ― Germany, Austria, and Alsace, France ― run the sweetness gamut. In Alsace and Austria, Riesling is traditionally made into very dry wine. Germany, on the other hand, has engineered six distinct styles, with names that seem to lengthen in direct proportion to the sweetness of the wine, from Kabinett (barely off-dry) and Auslese (a little sweeter), all the way to Trockenbeerenauslese (don't try to pronounce it ― insiders toss off "TBA" ― just call it dessert).

In this country, the problem is not the fact that some Western Rieslings have a little sweetness to them; it's that consumers have no way of knowing how much, if any. Germans have their six levels. Alsatians and Austrians have their mostly dry traditions. We have ― nothing. A lineup of West Coast Rieslings will run the gamut of bone-dry to off-dry to quite sweet, and keep it a secret until you get the bottle home and pop the cork. Labelspeak can offer clues: A "soft summer sipper" is probably a sweeter version; "crisp," drier. And winemakers are starting to help: More and more are labeling their bottles "dry" if the wine is, and some are even printing the percentage of residual sugar right on the label. In general, if it's less than 1 percent, the wine is considered dry; at 1 to 2 percent, off-dry.

Sweet or dry, Riesling is the wine to go with what's generally for dinner in the West these days: spicy Asian and Mexican dishes, seafood, fresh vegetables, salads. The laundry list of foods that the winemakers themselves recommend with it is astonishing: sushi, salami, chicken satay, asparagus (a wine challenge if there ever was one), barbecued ribs, corn on the cob, pad Thai, tandoori chicken, enchiladas, leek-and-potato gratin … and more cheeses than most wines are comfortable with.

This versatility ― and drinkability ― have translated into big sales. Kendall-Jackson sells about 180,000 cases a year; Fetzer Vineyards, about 80,000. Clos du Bois ― whose winemaker, Erik Olsen, came from Chateau Ste. Michelle ― just got into the market this year with about 20,000 cases. And Randall Grahm, intrepid promoter of underdog varieties, who has long produced dry Riesling under the Bonny Doon umbrella in California, is spinning his Pacific Rim label off into its own Riesling-devoted winery and moving it up to eastern Washington.

This month, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Loosen's highly respected German Riesling estate host a Riesling Rendezvous, an international conference for Riesling experts and winemakers. It won't be in Germany, but in Washington State. It seems that, while Western winemakers once looked to Europe for Riesling inspiration, now they're coming to us. Those hungry pigs ― they know exactly what they're doing.

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