Riesling has been on my mind a lot lately. For two really great reasons: Hood Canal Shrimp and the pick, albeit reluctantly, for this month’s wine tasting.
Riesling is one of the all-time classics, a noble grape variety, loved by beginners and experts for its awesome aromatics, crisp acidity and versatility with all food groups.
It could also be the world’s most misunderstood and mispronounced grape variety. (It’s pronounced reece ling, by the way.) Although not the most widely planted grape in German vineyards, it is the most prized with some of the most expensive little bottles of white wine you will ever see.
Riesling is one of my favorite wines. Wine made from Riesling is unlike any other. It is generally light in alcohol, refreshingly high in fruit, natural acidity and is capable of aging for decades. Like Chenin Blanc, it does well if fermented cool and bottled early without any malolactic fermentation or oak.
Where the grape is planted determines the style of Riesling you will purchase. Riesling actually ripens early, so when planted in warmer areas, its juice can be sweet and flabby. It needs some time in cool nights to build up the acidity to balance the sweetness. In cool climates, like Germany, the Alsace, Washington and Canada, it’s a late ripener and had time to develop flavors, aromatics and acidity.
Müller-Thurgau, the most widely grown and productive German variety and a Riesling cross, will ripen just about any place. But Riesling will only ripen fully on the most special sites, those with the most sunlight so that it stays on the vine well into fall. Riesling from the Mosel and its even cooler tributaries the Saar and Ruwer is one of the wine world’s most distinctive, least imitable wine styles: crisp, racy, refreshing as a mountain stream and with a hint of the slate that covers the best sites.
Riesling is also very successful in the Alsace region of northeast France, where 95% of the wines produced are white. Here in the Vosges Mountains, some of the best dry, steely Rieslings can age for a decade or two. Traditional cellars have huge oval vats, usually built into the cellar to store the wine. Inside these 100-year old vats, the walls are lined with a build up of tartrates so the wine never touches wood.
On the west coast, Riesling has been cultivated since the 19th century, by the early Germans, of course. The Beringers, Krugs, Schrams, Gundlachs and Bundschus were instrumental in planting acres of Riesling in California. All well and good until the 1970s when sweet wines fell out of favor and Chardonnay began to overtake Riesling in acreage.
In Washington State, Riesling has found the most suitable home outside of Germany. With 6,900 acres planted in eastern Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more Riesling than any other winery in the world. And then take into account Columbia Crest, Hogue and Covey Run also helping quench the thirst for Riesling.
A respected Mosel wine family, the Langguths, arrived in Washington in the early 1980’s with plenty of cash to build a winery. Opened in 1982, it was the largest facility in the State. In 1987, Snoqualmie Winery bought controlling interest in the winery, and installed Mike Januik as winemaker and changed the name to Saddle Mountain Winery. In 1991, Chateau Ste. Michelle bought the facility and it’s used for crush and storage.
And that brings us back to what wine for the Wine Club’s Tasting? What could I possibly find to turn them from reluctant Riesling tasters to wow! This is really good. So a scan of the Cellar lifted my hopes. But it’s a tough decision. Will it be 1987 Gordon Brothers, 1988 French Creek Cellars, 1993 Bookwalter all bottled for Whaling Days, or the 14 year old Claar Cellars Late Harvest Riesling?
I might also take a 1983er Eitelsbacher Karthauferhofberg Burgberg Auslese or a 1989 Schmitt Sohne Rheinhessen Bornheimer Adelberg Qba just to acquaint these junior palates with the heights that Riesling can rise to.
This weekend is the perfect time to become reacquainted with Washington Rieslings. I look forward to Hood Canal Shrimp on the barbie and some old, old favorites.
Cheers to you, Kitsap.