Sales are surging, off-dry styles are leading the charge—and Washington State wines are at the head of the pack.
There is no smoking gun (or toasted barrel) that can account for the surprising, steady rise in the popularity of Riesling—especially off-dry Riesling—over the past five years. No French paradox, no spitbucket-dumping movie scene, no social media upheaval.
But there it is: Nielsen’s grocery wine sales data for the most recent half year confirms that Riesling is the fastest-growing wine variety in the top 10, with increased sales in all price points. Washington has five of the top 15 national Riesling brands: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue, Columbia Crest, Pacific Rim and Columbia Winery. Germany has five, California has four and Australia one.
Here’s the clincher. First place Chateau Ste. Michelle—just the brand, not the entire winery group—does more volume than the next three combined. The Chateau is the largest single producer of Riesling in the world, and accounts for 18% of all domestic Riesling sales.
In some ways, it has come full circle. Way back in 1974, a 1972 Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling won a blind tasting sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. It was the first notable award for a modern-era Washington wine. For some time after, it was widely believed that Riesling and a few oddball German grapes were the only ones that could thrive up in the “frozen north.” And then sweet wines fell out of favor entirely.
Suddenly, they are back in vogue. And Riesling, which runs the gamut from bone dry to sticky sweet, covers all the bases. Bob Bertheau, senior director of winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, sees no end in sight.
“Compared to Chardonnay and the other major varietals,” Bertheau explains, “Riesling still represents a very small share of the wine category [about 2%]. We could triple the size of the Riesling category (in Nielsen Equivalent Cases) and still be smaller than White Zinfandel. And as consumers of all ages discover the breadth of the Riesling styles and simply how delicious it tastes, we see great growth potential.”
Popularity, no contest
There are many reasons for the surge in popularity. Alcohol levels, especially in the off-dry and sweeter styles, are comfortably low. Riesling can be grown organically, even biodynamically, and bottled under screwcap. When drunk young, it’s fresh and delicious. And yet some well-made Rieslings, with the dynamic tension that comes from the perfect sugar-acid balance, can age for decades.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Communications Director Lynda Eller points to recent statistics from Winemetrics (wine industry analysts) that seem to suggest that more and more consumers are moving away from a preference for White Zinfandel to Riesling. Beyond that, it’s clear that consumer tastes across the board are evolving, and younger drinkers, raised in a wine culture, have more adventurous, expansive palates than their parents
None of this explains why Washington State has become the Riesling capital of the country. But it probably has a lot to do with an initiative begun by Allen Shoup, in cooperation with Dr. Ernst Loo None of this explains why Washington State has become the Riesling capital of the country. But it probably has a lot to do with an initiative begun by Allen Shoup, in cooperation with Dr. Ernst Loosen, when Shoup was CEO of Ste. Michelle and its sister wineries. Now the principal partner in the Long Shadows wine group, Shoup dates the start of the Riesling Renaissance (as he named it then) to a meeting more than two decades ago.
“The first time Ernie Loosen came to my office, about 1988,” Shoup recalls, “he said to me, ‘I know there will be a Riesling resurgence someday but it won’t be in the Old World, it will be in the New World.’ And by that he meant Australia or America. I had just been to Australia and saw this resurgence already taking off and I didn’t want him to go there.”
Their discussions quickly turned serious and their Eroica project was designed as a showpiece for the effort to rehab Riesling. The idea was to combine German expertise with Washington fruit, and to make the best—not the cheapest—wine possible from Riesling grapes. Eroica debuted in 1999 and was an instant success.
Riesling: the next Pinot Noir?
At a 10-year Eroica retrospective in 2009, Ernst Loosen recalled being “a little bit shocked” when he first visited Washington vineyards in search of grapes for the project. “There was no price for Riesling,” he explained, “and people were in the mood to rip it out and plant something more valuable. They didn’t invest anything in the viticulture. They were doing deficit irrigation and fruit exposure (red wine style) with Riesling grapes! What you want is the opposite. The whole attitude has changed since Riesling has become more valuable.”
Loosen makes an interesting comparison to Pinot Noir, another grape variety that responds most intensely to soil, microclimate, inclination and exposure. “You need 30 to 40 years to find out what needs to be done in a particular vineyard,” he insists. “And then you see which vineyard areas over a long-term period are the most reliable. In the long term you will see that maybe eight years out of 10 are wonderful.”
One proven Washington Riesling site is The Benches (formerly the Wallula Vineyard), owned by Shoup and his Long Shadows partners. It provides grapes for the Poet’s Leap Riesling and the vineyard-designated, biodynamic bottling from Pacific Rim. Originally a Randall Grahm project, Pacific Rim has recently become part of the Banfi Vintners portfolio. The winery is dedicated almost exclusively to producing Washington Rieslings in a breathtaking array of styles.
“We are close to a full spectrum,” admits Nicolas Quillé, winemaker and general manager at Pacific Rim. “From very dry to very sweet, and also botrytis, ice wine, vin de glacière and sparkling Riesling. Anything with more residual sugar is doing very well. We see that in other categories also, not just Riesling. There is a trend in the marketplace toward sweeter wines. Even a lot of dry reds have residual sugar. There is something going on towards lower alcohol and therefore higher sugar.”
Washington on the march
Washington’s Rieslings are drawing the attention of the international community. At Ste. Michelle headquarters in Woodinville, there have been three global conferences devoted to Riesling in the past five years. The events, called Riesling Rendezvous, combine broad tastings with seminars and workshops and have proven so successful that the International Riesling Foundation plus organizations from Germany and Australia have joined Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen as future hosts. Riesling Rendezvous will be held in Seattle every three years on a rotating basis with events in Australia and Germany.
What ties many of these wines together? “The main characteristics that I see in Washington Rieslings are peach, stone fruit—apricot from the warmer sites—and citrus, mandarin and minerality from the cooler sites,” says Wendy Stuckey, Ste. Michelle’s white winemaker. “Some of the cooler sites in some years can exhibit passion fruit flavors. What I call ‘mouthwatering acidity’ gives the wines a purity and liveliness on the palate that is excellent for aging potential.”
Stuckey quite rightly notes that “the aging potential of Washington Rieslings is one area that we as winemakers do not promote enough.”
Whether you like your wine dry or sweet; whether you want it immaculately fresh or reliably ageworthy; Washington Rieslings have the magic flavor mix of tangy fruit, bracing minerality and refreshing acidity that make the best wines of summer so enjoyable.
Top-Rated Washington Rieslings
95 Poet’s Leap 2009 Riesling (Columbia Valley); $20.
Handpicked and whole cluster pressed, this immaculate, fresh, generous and stylish Riesling is always at the top of the list of Washington’s best. Loaded with grapefruit, citrus and stone flavors, it cleans the palate and piles on the details as it rolls into a finish that lingers for well over a full minute. Editors’ Choice.
94 Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen 2009 Eroica Riesling (Columbia Valley); $24.
This vintag marks the return of Evergreen vineyard fruit as the main component of the Eroica blend. This wine just gets better with every new vintage. Young and fresh, it hits the palate with lip-puckering acidity, rolling on flavors of lemons, oranges, citrus rind, and then into mango and papaya. Though the residual sugar is listed at 1.6%, it shows only in a pleasing roundness in the lengthy finish. Delicious now, but entirely cellar-worthy for a decade or longer. Editors’ Choice.
93 Pacific Rim 2009 Solstice Vineyard Riesling (Yakima Valley); $22.
The new release from this old (1972) vineyard boosts the alcohol to 13.9%, dropping the residual sugar to just over 1%. Deep, concentrated, and driven by a dense minerality, this exceptional single-vineyard Riesling has raw fruit flavors of green apple, white peach and citrus rind. Sure to evolve, perhaps over decades, it has the vivid acidity and penetrating finish to improve significantly. Editors’ Choice.
88 Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Harvest Select Riesling (Columbia Valley); $9.
Production keeps climbing for this off-dry (5% residual sugar) bottling from the country’s largest Riesling producer. Loaded with fresh Jonathan apple-flavored fruit, the sweetness is nicely balanced by the fresh, natural acids. Highlights of cinnamon and caramel add further pleasure to a wine with wide appeal. Best Buy.
Pairing Riesling with Food:
Riesling's strength is also its weakness: It does too many things well. It can be bone dry or decadently sweet, sparkling, still or ice wine, and each will have a different range of food affinities. Without getting too complicated, here are some simple guidelines:
When planning a wine and food pairing, begin by identifying the residual sugar level in the wine. If it’s labeled dry, it still may have a bit of sweetness, but not much. If labeled simply Riesling, you may expect it to be off-dry, but with plenty of acid to balance the sugar. If it says late harvest, late picked, or sweet, and comes in a 375 ml bottle clearly intended for dessert, it is probably quite sweet.
A simple way to check on wines that are not clearly labeled is to look at the listed alcohol level, usually in small type somewhere around the frame of the front label. If it's over 13%, you probably have a dry wine in the bottle. If it's 11% to 13%, count on some sweetness. If the residual sugar is listed, look for a wine around 2% to 3% to be off-dry, and if it is a Washington Riesling, it’s sure to have balancing acidity. When you get higher levels of sugar, say over 4%, and corresponding lower levels of alcohol, the wine is most likely to be quite sweet.
Dry Rieslings are versatile companions to sushi, shellfish, simple roasted poultry, crisp salads and salty cheeses.
Off-dry Rieslings are especially complementary when paired with Southeast Asian dishes that are both sweet and spicy or tangy. But they can also work wonders with other spicy foods, or salads made with chicken and fruit.
Sweet dessert Rieslings will be perfect companions to fruit tarts, pies and pastries, especially those with apples, pears, peaches or apricots. Mild cheeses will also pair well with most Riesling. You can try them with foie gras, or anywhere you might also consider a sweet Sauternes.