Riesling’s Renaissance

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vineyardYears ago, my wine shopping strategy was simple. I’d visit my local wine shop and make a beeline to whichever section held my favorite varietal, Riesling. Then I’d scan the shelf for German Rieslings, which I believed to be the best Rieslings in the world. Rarely did I select one made outside that renowned region. And I certainly didn’t believe that a Washington-made Riesling could compete with the stellar selection from abroad.

But that was before I needed a sophisticated, budget-friendly Riesling to serve at my wedding and before my go-to wine guy introduced me to the inviting Columbia Valley Riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle. Encouraged by my first taste of a local, entry level Riesling, I started shifting my shopping strategy to encompass a Washington label on occasion—and with good reason. There’s a Riesling renaissance happening in our own backyard.

And what a renaissance it is. Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest single producer of Riesling in the world (and makes up to nine different styles each year), while smaller wineries like Efeste, Charles Smith Wines, Tsillan Cellars and Long Shadows Vintners are producing outstanding versions of their own. Washington can even claim a winery devoted solely to Riesling production: Randall Graham’s Pacific Rim Winery makes ten Rieslings, in every style from dry to sweet to sparkling.

Washington producers have made room for Riesling both because they love the wine and because it makes sense. Washington boasts the cool climate hardy Riesling grapes love (and need) for winemakers to make well-balanced Rieslings with natural, lively acidity.
“The beauty of Washington is the fact that we have the climate and the soils and elevation to make this wide range of styles of Riesling and for a company like ours that is startling,” says Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white winemaker Wendy Stuckey.

But climate and vineyard conditions were only half of the equation that has led to the success of local Riesling. The second piece had to do with the market for the wine and, more specifically, consumer misconceptions about the noble grape.

For many years, consumers avoided the varietal because they expected all Riesling to mirror the sweet, syrupy wine they drank back in the 70s and 80s. Slowly though, the varietal’s reputation has improved as consumers realize that well-made Riesling is clean and bright, not a sweet, one-note wine. Many local Rieslings have excellent minerality and offer aromas and flavors of apples, peaches and apricots and a balanced acidity.

“What happened was Riesling was identified as being less sophisticated than other wines because it was produced at a higher sweetness level,” says Long Shadows Vintners founder Allen Shoup. “But then American consumers became increasingly sophisticated and came to the realization that Riesling is one of the noble grapes. It’s recognized for its incredible diversity to make bone dry sparkling wines all the way up the sweetness level to sauternes, the wonderful sweet wine. No other grape runs this gamut of ability.”

And few grapes have the pairing potential Riesling offers, making it a favorite among local chefs and sommeliers and consumers who’ve jumped on the Riesling bandwagon. Time and time again, local sommeliers shared that Riesling pairs well with everything from charcuterie to seafood to spicy Asian cuisine. “I wouldn’t have it with steak, but I always say if you want a white wine that can go with anything, go with a Riesling,” says Barking Frog’s wine director Jeffrey Dorgan.

Dorgan often pairs Riesling with the restaurant’s signature Marnier prawns and suggests late harvest Riesling to diners who order desserts like a vanilla-raspberry pot de crème. Janor Bourgerie of Bin on the Lake likes to pair Riesling with the kitchen’s crab fritters and crème brûlée—among other things. “[Riesling is] very complex and has a great combination of acid and sugar, which makes it a fantastic food wine,” he says. “The acidity of the wine helps the Riesling handle heartier sauces and offset flavors like ginger, and the sugar helps it tackle Asian foods and even curries.”

Bellevue’s Purple Café Wine Director Dawn Smith also finds that a balanced, off-dry Riesling works well with a variety of foods thanks to its subtle sweetness and “an amazing acid balance that lets the flavor nuances of Riesling shine through.” When she pairs a dish with Riesling (or vice versa), Smith always considers those two factors: the acidity and the sweetness.

“The acidity level of the Riesling should be equal to or greater than the acidity level in the dish or it will make the wine seem flabby,” she says. “Additionally, when you are pairing sweet wine with sweet foods, the sweetness in the wine should be equal to or greater than the sweetness of the dish or the wine will be taste tart and thin.”

Whether you are planning to pair a Riesling with an Asian-inspired dinner or sip it solo on the porch this summer, use our tasting notes to start your exploration of Washington Rieslings. You’ll quickly understand why the varietal is such a favorite among winemakers and sommeliers. And if you’re like me, you might even discover that Washington Riesling is as good—if not better—than those famed German wines.


Ashley Gartland is a Portland-based freelance food writer and recipe developer who has written for MIX, Runner’s World and Tastingtable.com. She is currently working on her first cookbook, titled Dishing Up Oregon. Read more of her work at www.ashleygartland.com.

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