Riesling Dreams in Oregon
"Why don't they grow more Riesling in the Willamette Valley?" asked the Southern Oregon winery owner when I visited recently. "It's easy to grow and it should do well in the climate there."
Riesling has nearly become the "forgotten grape" of Oregon . . . even as a few dedicated producers are beginning to make stunning examples of this noble variety. Yet in fact, Riesling was the first vinifera variety to be planted by Oregon's early modern pioneers.
Richard Sommer (himself nearly the "forgotten pioneer") harvested his first Riesling vintage in 1963 at his Hillcrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley AVA (Oregon's "forgotten appellation"?). Long-time Oregon wine fans that have tasted some of his earlier Rieslings use a variety of superlatives, from "luscious" to "incredible" to describe the wines. Other pioneers equally saw the potential of Riesling and planted it widely in the Willamette Valley in the 1970s and 1980s.
More About -Oregon Riesling
But as Oregon winemakers started achieving recognition for their success with Pinot noir, and as the broader market tastes for white wines turned to Chardonnay, and more recently Pinot gris, Riesling has been in decline in Oregon. Wonderful old vine Riesling plants are being pulled up or grafted over to more popular varieties, and the concept of actually planting new Riesling is alien to all but the most dedicated producers.
In part, that's because us Oregon wine consumers don't really know how wonderful a good Riesling can be . . . and that is in part because few Oregon winemakers have chosen to bring out the full potential of Riesling from this region.
My own Riesling epiphany occurred at the famous Alain Ducasse restaurant in Paris some years ago. When presented with a two-inch thick, hand-written and leather bound wine list, I decided that I was in over my head and asked the sommelier to recommend a wine to go with our multi-course seafood dinner.
In impeccable English the sommelier asked if I liked Riesling. Thinking that I did not (because all I was then accustomed to were sickly semi-sweet versions), I nevertheless answered "Of course"—and a good thing, too!
The wine he served (a 1983 Alsatian Riesling from Lorentz) was unbelievable: incredibly clear fruit, nut, and oil flavors stacked upon a bright acid core that was simply addictive. It complemented the seafood with such perfection that for the first time in my life I could really see what great wine was all about.
Great Rieslings are that good!
My Oregon Riesling revelation came at a small vertical tasting of all the Rieslings produced by the Argyle winery in Dundee. Winemaker Rollin Soles poured out samples of every vintage from 1988 through 1999. The wines were simply superb. Fantastically rich in fruit flavors with a fresh and vibrant feel, they demonstrated to me that Riesling can be great in Oregon.
I'm not alone in that belief. Harry Peterson-Nedry, owner and winemaker at Chehalem in Newberg, (at right) says that the winery is engaged "in a Don Quixote-like attempt to resuscitate Riesling in our great cool climate . . ." Firmly dedicated to realizing the potential of New World Riesling, Harry has been producing wonderful examples of what is possible—and now he's engaged on a mission to help consumers understand the appeal of this great grape
Similarly, Jay Somers, who makes Rieslings under his own J. Christopher brand and for the Holloran and Stafford Hill label, is also a convert. "We're planting new Riesling," he says, and comments that he's always on the lookout to find old vine Riesling vineyards hiding in Oregon's hills and dales. If the past few vintages of Jay's Rieslings are any example, the future holds great things for his Riesling releases!
Adam Godlee Campbell, owner and winemaker at Elk Cove Vineyards, is another enthusiastic Riesling booster. "We're hoping for a resurgence of Riesling," he says, and has put his money where his mouth is by continuing to make wine from his 25-year old Riesling vines, and from other sources that meet his standards.
Argyle's Rollin Soles—maker of so many excellent Oregon Rieslings—is also fully committed to the varietal. Though there is no current vintage of Argyle Riesling, it is not because of lack of interest. Quite the contrary! Argyle has been planting new Riesling vineyards and is planning to give the varietal new impetus in years to come with redoubled releases.
Other prime Oregon Riesling producers are giving consumers an increasing choice of tasty styles and approaches. These include Lemelson Vineyards, Belle Pente, and Brooks, as well as Amity, Girardet, LaVelle, and Airlie.
Of course, the winemakers will only produce what we wine consumers will buy. The key to better Riesling from Oregon is more people buying the wine!
So why aren't consumers attracted to Riesling the way they are to, say Pinot gris?
One reason is because Riesling can be made in so many ways—including insipidly sweet and blandly weak—that most consumers don't have a consistent sense of what Riesling tastes like. When they buy a bottle, they often receive a wine that is simple and pleasurable, but hardly complex and profound. Usually it is sweet (or off dry) and is seen as a "picnic wine" rather than a glorious accompaniment to good food.
Of course, there is a Catch-22 at work here. The reason consumers buy basic Rieslings is because they are often very inexpensive . . . because the wineries have learned that the high-yield, inexpensively made wines sell better than the low-cropped, hand-crafted versions . . . because consumers can't see paying $20 for a wine they think should sell for $8.
But the more expensive Riesling is often the better Riesling because the winery has put more care and expense into producing a better wine. Compare a $20 bottle of Chehalem or Holloran Riesling with an $8 bottle of any other Riesling and the difference will be painfully plain!
So what should you do? Buy Oregon Rieslings . . . pay a little more for them . . . and pay a little more attention to them . . . and soon you'll find a whole new wine world opening up for you: the world of New World Riesling!
About the Best Riesling in Oregon and Washington
Because of both its cellar longevity and its ability to maintain varietal identity while reflecting the individuality of its terroir, Riesling may be the best of all the white wine grapes. Its homeland is Germany, where it has been cultivated since the 1400s or earlier, and where it is made into wines that run the gamut from bone dry and crisp quaffers to the complex, unctuous nectars made from Botrytis-affected, shriveled berries, individually late-picked, and known by the moniker Trockenbeerenauslese.
Sometimes referred to as White, Rhine, or Johannisberg, the Riesling name has been tarnished by the attachment of its name to other white varietals (Grey Riesling--aka Chaucé Gris--, Walschriesling--aka Italian Riesling--, and Missouri Riesling) that are of far lesser quality and genetically unrelated to the true Riesling. It does have distant relatives in the Sylvaner (or Franken) Riesling and the crosses, Emerald Riesling (with Muscadelle du Bordelais) and Müller-Thurgau (with Sylvaner). In Germany, there are more than 60 selected Riesling clones available to meet various flavor and growing condition criteria.
Riesling vines are particularly hard-wooded and tolerant of cold weather and they bud late, so are well-suited to the coldest wine-growing climes. Riesling is both moderately vigorous and productive, yielding from three to six tons per acre. The berries are small, round and soft when ripe, with tender, greenish-yellow skins that have a flecked appearance from lenticels (lens-shaped pores) on the skins. Hanging in compact, winged clusters and ripening later than other varieties, bunch rot and non-beneficial molds can be a problem if there is much rain or humidity during in the ripening season.
If dry conditions, however, follow a single day of wet, Riesling grapes left on the vine beyond normal ripeness can develop Edelfäule (Nobel Rot). The result of this ugly but non-toxic mold, Botrytis cinerea, is the shriveling of the grapes, the evaporation of much of the juice, and the concentration of the sugar. The German names for this heirarchy, which ascends in order of the must weight or degree of sugar concentration, are Spätlese (late-picked), Auslese (selectively-picked bunches), Beerenauslese (selectively-picked berries), and Trockenbeerenauslese (only the most affected berries), or TBA. These wines have not only incredibly intense and concentrated flavors, but also remarkable life span.
Hillside microclimates which provide cool climates and at the same time plenty of sun exposure, yet protection from the winds are of paramount importance to quality Riesling. The best German vineyards with these conditions on the Mosel River produce wines that are unique in their low alcohol, powerful aroma, and high extract. This grape also is very successful in Alsace, France. The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Riesling are: Santa Barbara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Mendocino, while Washington and Oregon also have done well. Other countries which grow Riesling with much dedication, albeit generally lesser results, are Australia, South Africa, Chile, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, Yugoslavia, and Italy.
Riesling has a powerful and distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard source and is often described as "racy." Its high natural level of Tartaric acid enables it to balance even high levels of residual sugar. The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in riesling-based wines include:
The light, delicately sweet flavor of simple pan-fried-in-butter trout is especially good with Riesling. On the other hand, grilled or sautéed sausage, with its range from savory to spicy, also works well with this varietal. As with most foods, spices and sauce should be the factors that determine the wine match, rather than the color of the meat. Try a Riesling with Spicy Long Bean Beef Stir Fry and you'll understand.
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