Second of two parts
In 1999, Washington state’s vineyards included 1,900 acres of Riesling and 6,100 acres of chardonnay. By 2011, Riesling there had exploded to 6,320 acres, while chardonnay had dipped slightly mid-decade before recovering to 7,654 acres.
Chardonnay also is king among California white wine grapes, with an amazing proliferation in vineyards over 50 years, from just over 300 acres in the early 1960s to more than 95,000 today. Riesling was more plentiful than chardonnay in the state a half-century ago, covering 450 acres. Today it accounts for more than 4,000, an impressive increase in a state that most wine lovers dismiss as ill-suited for the grape.
Those examples of dramatic growth in American Riesling vineyards are part of the reason Stuart Piggott hails “the United States of Riesling” in his new book, “Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Piggott, a British wine writer and one of the world’s leading Riesling experts, gives us authoritative snapshots of his favorite wine around what he calls “Planet Riesling.” Germany, the grape’s homeland, is still the top producer, but the United States ranks second.
Piggott is winking at us none too subtly when he implies that everyone in New York is drinking Riesling to the virtual exclusion of anything else, but he has hit on something: Riesling is increasingly popular among wine fiends, winemakers, sommeliers and younger consumers who don’t consider a wine to be inferior if it’s a bit sweet. In fact, its ability to shine at all levels of sweetness is a major part of Riesling’s charm, and Piggott urges us to get over our prejudice that wine has to be dry to be good.
“Riesling isn’t always sweet, in fact it often tastes drier than chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio,” he writes. “However, even when it’s sweet, it’s a great food wine that can’t wait to get onto your dinner table and into your picnic basket.”
Moderate alcohol levels and an ability to pair well with the spicy foods of various international cuisines also work in its favor.
Piggott tells how Riesling regained its luster in Washington state with the joint venture between Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s largest winery, and Ernst Loosen, Germany’s most famous winemaker, to produce a Columbia Valley Riesling called Eroica. Not only has Eroica become the leading U.S. Riesling, at about $25, but Loosen’s work with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winemakers has helped improve the winery’s other Rieslings. Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Dry Riesling is one of the best white wine values produced in the United States.
Loosen “fundamentally changed how we thought of viticulture with Riesling,” recalls Brennon Leighton, who worked on Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white wine program in the early days of Eroica. Today he is a winemaker with Charles Smith Wines, producer of the popular Kung Fu Girl Riesling, with a production of 180,000 cases a year. Leighton credits Loosen with teaching Ste. Michelle’s winemakers techniques in the vineyard and winery that allowed them to produce wines with greater acidity and minerality without relying on residual sweetness to balance the wine.
Preserving acidity is not always a problem in cooler parts of the “United States of Riesling.” Oregon’s Riesling plantings have not grown so dramatically — from 572 acres planted in 2001 to 700 a decade later. But Riesling has become a decided niche concern amid the state’s more famous pinot noirs. Piggott relates the heartwarming story of Brooks Winery after the 2004 death of its founder, Jimi Brooks, who had urged fellow winemakers to feature Riesling. Today, the winery leads an enthusiastic cadre of Oregon Riesling producers, including Chehalem, Trisateum and Lemelson.
The story doesn’t stop there. Riesling is a major player in the growth of wine regions in the northern part of the country, including Sawtooth Vineyards in Idaho’s Snake River Valley and Chateau Grand Traverse in Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula. And let’s not forget the Finger Lakes in New York, a region that produces delicate Rieslings in a variety of styles. These wines are not only getting better year by year; they also are reaching the market instead of being sold exclusively from the winery door.
So maybe we are becoming the United States of Riesling — even though we still drink more chardonnay.