The rise of Riesling

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

Sara Schneider

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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