were tough for those trying to sell Riesling to Americans in the
early 1990s. The most literate and passionate US importer of German
wine Terry Theise, now with Michael Skurnik Wines, had to devise
cunning stratagems to persuade wine drinkers to even try them.
a public tasting in New York, on being asked by a woman for his
"best Chardonnay", he famously poured her a fine, off-dry Riesling
from the Pfalz region in southern Germany.
"Oh my," she said, "I do believe this is the best
Chardonnay I've ever had!"
"That's because it comes from the town of Riesling”, he said
conspiratorially, pointing to the word Riesling on the label. "All
the best Chardonnays come from the village of Riesling. If you just
look for that word on the label, you're guaranteed to get an outstanding
"Why thank you so much, you've really taught me something,"
course I would prefer it if the butt of this story were a male wine
drinker who thought he knew it all rather than a female one who
clearly did not, but I take my hat off to Mr Theise for demonstrating
so vividly that the typical American Chardonnay can be just as sweet
as many a Riesling, a varietal scorned by Americans a decade ago
for its supposed sickliness.
have changed quite dramatically recently however. Mr Theise and
others importing German wines across the Atlantic are thriving,
thanks particularly to American enthusiasm for Germany's 2001 and
2002 vintages. Nor is Germany's super-ripe, record-breaking 2003
vintage likely to be spurned by US wine buyers. There is barely
a self-respecting restaurant on either coast of the United States
without some fine Riesling, now recognised as friendlier to food
than many Chardonnays, on its wine list.
second most important wine-producing state, Washington in the far
Pacific Northwest, is even suffering a serious shortage of Riesling
and the dominant company Chateau Ste Michelle is having to import
wine from Germany to make up the shortfall.
the last few harvests grape prices for Chardonnay in Washington
have been steadily falling while those for the increasingly popular
Riesling have been rising to almost the same levels, about $700
a ton. Just five years ago the standard price for Riesling grapes
was less than $400 a ton.
main reason for this dramatic upturn in Riesling's fortunes in Washington
state is human, in the bespectacled form of Ernst Loosen, wine producer
of Bernkastel in the Mosel valley and arguably Germany's
best-known figure on the international wine stage. With his deep
love of red burgundy and Pinot Noir in general, he had been visiting
America's Pinot state Oregon to the immediate south of Washington
for some time when he heard that Chateau Ste Michelle was busy signing
up Europeans in joint winemaking ventures. He had tasted the odd
Washington Riesling which he thought had potential and suggested
to the company, based in a sylvan suburb of Seattle, that together
they might be able to make an even better wine.
recent years he has identified the three or four vineyards in the
semi-desert of eastern Washington that seem cool enough to yield
sufficiently fine Riesling grapes, and has encouraged
growers there to increase crop levels slightly so as to delay ripening
and allow interesting flavours to develop.
was born Eroica Riesling which, since its debut vintage in 1999,
has become one of America's most admired white wines Â– and certainly
its most celebrated Riesling by far. The leading wine magazine Wine
Spectator has included every vintage in its top 100 wines of
the year (although personally I feel there may be more than a hint
of fashionable patriotism at work here Â– it is not difficult
to find German Rieslings finer than Eroica, however well made the
to all this publicity, Eroica is extremely popular and sells out
before the next vintage is available. Thus is it that Chateau Ste
Michelle has decided to import a 2003 German Riesling made in the
Pfalz by Loosen, to satisfy demand. Under pressure from Loosen,
who has become tired of cork taint, it is stoppered by a screwcap,
still a novelty in the US wine market, but is otherwise packaged
very much as a Chateau Ste Michelle product. Saint M will retail
at around $12 - Eroica sells at closer to $20 - and is made in a
very similar off-dry style with lots of fresh peachiness
and immediate appeal.
has Chateau Ste Michelle become a serious Riesling producer Â– indeed
the company, whose efforts until recently were focused on Merlot,
Cabernet and Chardonnay, claims to be the largest single producer
of Riesling in the world, already selling a total about five million
bottles a year of this under-estimated varietal, including
their other Riesling bottlings and tiny amounts of an excellent,
super-sweet, botrytised Riesling coaxed by Ernie from the 1999,
2000 and 2001 vintages.
the south, Oregon producers are also witnessing their own small
Riesling boom (everything in Oregon is small Â– except for the beards
of the winemakers). There is now an official shortage of
Riesling grapes in Oregon where prices per ton can be even higher
than in Washington. Chehalem's $19 Dry Riesling runs out after four
or five months and some growers are planting the great German grape
variety once again.
it should be pointed out, is not exactly new in the Pacific Northwest.
Riesling was the principal light-skinned grape variety in both Oregon
and, especially, Washington in the early 1980s but then, as Myron
Redford of Amity Vineyards puts it, Â“we realised we were gauche
drinking Riesling and not ChardonnayÂ” so everything changed Â– despite
the fact that the clone of Chardonnay planted in Oregon until
recently was hopelessly ill-suited to its damp autumns.
these two Riesling peaks, growers tended to pull out their Riesling
vines, or graft them over to a more fashionable variety Â– and quite
substantial quantities of Washington's Riesling wine was sold in
bulk to the likes of Gallo in California.
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in California has been producing a Pacific
Rim Riesling from Washington fruit, topped up with the maximum permissible
proportion of Riesling imported from Johannes Selbach in the Mosel,
for years now.
grows a fraction of the Riesling it once did, for much of the state's
wine country is too hot for this cool climate grape variety. There
are however a few producers who faithfully persist with it in foggy
corners such as the Anderson Valley. Navarro in particular
has steadfastly made fine Rieslings for decades.
American region with arguably the most noble history of Riesling
production however is the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York
where long-lived dry Rieslings have long been made. They too
deserve to benefit from the delights of the village of Riesling.
favourite American Rieslings
Chehalem Dry Riesling 2002 Oregon
Cold Creek Riesling 2003 Washington
Eroica Riesling 2003 Washington
Cellars Late Harvest White Riesling 2003 Washington
White Riesling 2001 Cluster Select Late Harvest California
J Wiemer Dry Riesling 2002 New York
Woodward Canyon Dry Riesling 2002 Washington