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Washington’s Rieslings on the rise

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Wine has its archetypes. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot from Bordeaux. Pinot noir from Burgundy, nebbiolo from Piemonte and sangiovese from Tuscany. For Riesling, the world benchmark is set by Germany, with its vineyards along the Rhine and Mosel rivers.

American vintners have always looked to these European icons as their models and have frequently enlisted luminaries from the Old World to help make better wine here in the New. The most famous such venture is Opus One, the Napa Valley partnership forged in the 1970s between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

But the most influential has probably been Eroica.

Eroica is a joint venture between Washington state’s Chateau Ste. Michelle winery and Ernst Loosen, a celebrated Riesling producer from Germany’s Mosel region. The partnership was the brainchild of Allen Shoup, then chief executive of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries, among others. (Today, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates produces 60 percent of Washington state’s wine.)

When Washington’s wine industry began to develop, in the 1960s, Riesling was king: The grape ripened reliably and made fairly sweet wines. As the industry and America’s palates matured, Riesling fell out of favor. Washington’s wine reputation in the ’80s and ’90s was based more on merlot, cabernet sauvignon and eventually syrah. The advent of Eroica helped return Riesling to prominence. It has influenced not only the rest of Chateau Ste. Michele’s Rieslings, but also the entire state’s. And it has helped fuel an increase in the popularity of Riesling that extends to those produced in Oregon and New York.

“Washington has been changing,” says David Rosenthal, associate winemaker for white wines at Chateau Ste. Michelle. “Over the last 12 years, more Riesling has been planted and produced, especially in cooler sites with chalkier soils.” He cited Evergreen Vineyard, in the Columbia River valley, as the state’s premier Riesling site. Evergreen is a major contributor to Eroica, as well as to another popular Riesling called Kung Fu Girl, from Charles Smith Wines.

Eroica sells for about $20, a fairly modest price for its exceptional quality. And the program has helped improve the rest of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Riesling wines, most of which sell for less than $10, according to Rosenthal. These wines are also helpfully labeled according to the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale, so consumers can have an idea of how sweet the wine is before they buy it. At $9 full retail, Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, year after year, is arguably the best white wine bargain produced in the United States.

Eroica’s influence does not stop there, however. Chateau Ste. Michelle serves as a training ground for Washington winemakers, including Brennon Leighton, who used to work on Eroica for Chateau Ste. Michelle and is now crafting wines for Efeste Vineyards. Efeste’s 2010 Riesling from Evergreen Vineyard is electrifying in its focus; it seems to balance on a knife edge of acidity before bursting with apricot and peach richness.

And Shoup, who relinquished the helm of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2000, has not left the game. In his “retirement” he founded Long Shadows Wineries, continuing his model of inviting world-renowned winemakers to fashion their own expression of Washington’s terroir from various grapes grown in prime vineyards along the Columbia River. The Long Shadows Riesling, called Poet’s Leap, is crafted by Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel, a prominent producer in Germany’s Nahe region. Like the Eroica, it is a Riesling to make you sit up and take notice that American wine has established its own benchmarks for quality.

Dave McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com; follow him on Twitter @dmwine.

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