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Great Northwest Wine: A belated birthday wish to noble grape riesling

Riesling thrives in the Pacific Northwest’s climate and soils, which allows for larger crop loads and higher production. (Richard Duval / Richard Duval Images)
Riesling thrives in the Pacific Northwest’s climate and soils, which allows for larger crop loads and higher production. (Richard Duval / Richard Duval Images)
By Eric Degerman For The Spokesman-Review

Last week marked the first anniversary of the official worldwide observance of March 13 as the birthday for riesling, the noble grape of Germany that’s such an important chapter in the biography of the Northwest wine industry.

A year ago, Wines of Germany and its legion of supporters began to celebrate a page found in the records of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen. The Rheingau producer referenced vines of Rieslingen on March 13, 1435, a date historians view as the world’s first written evidence of riesling even though the Germans have been making wine since 50 B.C.

The Pacific Northwest ranks as the most important producer of riesling in the United States, and Chateau Ste. Michelle is the cornerstone as the largest producer of riesling in the world. Interest sparked in 1999 when Ste. Michelle debuted its partnership with German producer Ernst Loosen on the now-iconic Eroica project, which led to the riesling renaissance.

Alas, interest in riesling has softened in the last six years. Statistics on the 2019 vintage are expected to be released soon, but from 2014 to 2018, the harvest of riesling in Washington state fell 24%. Don’t despair. Ste. Michelle will continue to lead the way in the marketplace, and its remarkable work as an ambassador serves as the gateway for riesling exploration.

“There are more people trying to make riesling, some of them in 50- and 100-case lots,” said Kent Waliser, director of vineyard operations for Sagemoor Farms in the Columbia Valley. “With the addition of the different riesling clones, the flavors are more interesting. And more winemakers are dabbling with harvest dates and acidity levels to create rieslings of complexity.”

For naysayers who have long dismissed riesling as “a sweet wine,” the industry has listened. There are more examples of dry to medium-dry rieslings than ever before, and the suggestions below are testament to that, each having won a gold medal in the last 12 months.

In Germany, dry Rieslings are labeled as trocken. Domestic producers label these rieslings as dry, or they use the International Riesling Foundation’s Taste Profile scale on the back label to give consumers an indication of the wine’s sweetness. In use since 2008, it appears on millions of riesling bottles each year. It’s not uncommon to find it used on bottles of other white wines.

Just around the corner are young rieslings from the 2019 harvest. However, it can be argued that no white wine becomes more fascinating or delicious as it ages as riesling, and they remain food-friendly along the way.

“l think riesling will hit again in the future as people turn more toward vineyard designates for a sense of place and experiment more,” Waliser said. “There are a lot more interesting choices, and if we can slowly repopulate wine lists at restaurants with riesling, that would help.”

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2018 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $9: The largest production of riesling in the world remains not only one of the most delicious examples, but also one of the industry’s most absurdly remarkable bargains. On the Riesling Taste Profile, this scales as medium-dry, a product of its brilliant natural acidity rather than its 2% residual sugar.

It features orchard fruit, jasmine and spice in the aromas ahead of a flavorful blend of Granny Smith apple, lime juice and tropicality on the palate. Serve with crab, chicken rubbed with fresh herbs or a fruit and cheese plate.

Rain Dance Vineyards 2018 Grand Oak Vineyard Estate Riesling, Chehalem Mountains, $24: Oregon’s north Willamette Valley shines with cool-climate varieties, and efforts with riesling by their winemakers go overlooked much too often. Bryan Weil, an emerging star for Alexana in the Dundee Hills, skillfully splits his time with Rain Dance and the Austin family.

His work here with the vineyard established by Nick and Sheila Nicholas is alluring with whiffs of lime and white peach. Those are mirrored on the bright and racy palate that’s capped by a sense of minerality. It was voted Best Riesling at the 2019 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. Enjoy with lemongrass chicken or a BLT.

Sawtooth Winery 2018 Classic Fly Series Dry Riesling, Snake River Valley $18: Meredith Smith and assistant winemaker Maddy McGarry team up for another stellar example of riesling from this sister brand of Idaho giant Ste. Chapelle. Lovely aromas of peach, pear and tangerine include some powdered chalk and clover honey.

It’s front-loaded with Asian pear and white peach flavors backed by lime zest and a sense of tension that comes with great examples of riesling. This was selected as the best of class at the 2019 Idaho Wine Competition.

Ancestry Cellars 2017 Reminiscence Riesling, Columbia Gorge, $20: One of the coolest sites for grapes in the Pacific Northwest is Underwood Mountain Vineyard above White Salmon, Washington. That’s why Jason Morin focuses much of his efforts with riesling on this site.

Wet stone on the nose speaks adamantly to varietal correctness, and the flavor profile lines up equally well. Petrol, grilled peaches, sugared lime peel, green apples and minerally tones create a brilliant kaleidoscope of flavors on the vibrant palate. This topped the list of riesling entries at the 2019 Platinum Judging.

Yamhill Valley Vineyards 2016 Riesling, Willamette Valley, $18: Wine Press Northwest’s 2019 Oregon Winery of the Year pulls riesling from its estate, the second-oldest vineyard in the McMinnville American Viticultural Area, for this classic example.

Granny Smith apple and light petrol aromas lead to long flavors of white peach and tangerine, making for a charming finish. Critical acclaim for it includes a gold at the invite-only Jefferson Cup in Kansas City and a 2019 Platinum.

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