Grapes Gone Wild: Washington and German Rieslings Go Head-to-head

By Shannon Borg

December 31, 1969

Are Washington rieslings sweeter than the rest? Shannon Borg helps you discover some of the world's

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Category: Eat + Drink Articles


For three days in Woodinville this month, Riesling fans from around the globe—wine professionals, media and the public—will gather to explore this grape in its many variations, from bone-dry wines with crisp acidity to luscious honeylike dessert wines, at Riesling Rendezvous, a conference at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery that will include a grand consumer tasting, workshops and classes all devoted to Riesling. This white wine has been popular for decades, says Dan McCarthy, owner of McCarthy & Schiering wine shop on Queen Anne, “But only recently are we truly exploring the range of what this wine can be.” McCarthy, like many local Riesling lovers, is attracted to the complexity of flavors Riesling offers—from lime zest to clementine orange, nectarine to pineapple, slate and even petrol notes—and looks forward to trying the wide range of Rieslings from Germany, Austria, Oregon, California, and of course, Washington.
Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more Riesling than any single winery in the world (about 700,000 cases), and most of that is a sweet, accessible style meant to be drunk now rather than aged. But in the past few years, Chateau Ste. Michelle has committed to producing world-class Rieslings. Since 1999, one of Germany’s largest Riesling producers, Dr. Ernst Loosen, has been collaborating with Chateau Ste. Michelle—including winemakers Bob Bertheau and Brennon Leighton—on their high-end Eroica Riesling (winner of Seattle magazine’s Best Riesling three years in a row). Chateau Ste. Michelle now makes seven Rieslings from various vineyards around the state, such as Indian Wells Vineyard, a warm growing site on the Wahluke Slope.

While Washington Rieslings are starting to garner more attention across the U.S., the real question is whether they can stand up next to the great wines of Germany, whose Rieslings are known for being complex in aroma and flavor, with balanced acidity and minerality. With the Northwest’s warmer, longer days (in comparison to Germany’s cooler climate), Washington fruit can get very ripe, which translates into big flavor, but also results in high-sugar or high-alcohol wines. “Washington Riesling needs to find the balance of fruit, acid and alcohol. For Eroica, I used a technique to fine [or filter] out the bitterness before fermentation, which allowed us to keep the great flavors from fermentation—a very slow fermentation over 25 days that kept the delicate fruit flavors intact,” says Leighton, who was in charge of all Chateau Ste. Michelle wines from 2000 to 2007. 

Now Leighton is making wine for Efeste, a new winery in Woodinville, and hopes to make another world-class Riesling. “We need to find our own character in Washington. We are not Germany, and we are not California, but we have a bit of both worlds—both cool nights that create good acidity and warm days that create ripe fruit.”
At Riesling Rendezvous, the curious will have a chance to taste Rieslings from around the world at a grand consumer tasting ($50) on Sunday, July 27, from 5 to 8 p.m. The next few days will be filled with workshops on the terroir and ageability of Riesling; food pairings with chef John Sarich of Chateau Ste. Michelle; and other subjects. At the public tasting, you can also make the call yourself, tasting wines—from dry to sweet—and deciding which achieve the best balance, flavor and complexity possible from this exciting grape.

Shannon’s Wine Picks:
Loimer 2006 Austria-Kamptal ($17)–Grown on granite hills, this dry Riesling shows peppery aromas similar to Gruner Veltliner, another crisp Austrian wine. Lemon and petrol aromas on the nose are followed by lush stone fruit and kirsch flavors. Pairs with: Lemon-pepper pasta with chicken.

Hence Cellars 2006 Ries


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