Last July, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s semiannual Riesling Rendezvous wine tasting event brought together hundreds of the true geeks of the wine world, excited to spend three days focused on a single grape variety. The only major conference focused on just one grape variety in the country, the rendezvous is a chance to taste Rieslings from Austria to New Zealand and beyond, and showcase this complex grape’s manifestations. And although most of us know Riesling is a great summer sipper, the versatile wine pairs beautifully with the foods of fall and winter as well.
The United States is just catching up with what the rest of the world knows: Riesling is one of the best food wines, and can cover a range of styles from bone dry to honey sweet. But we are lucky enough to live in one of the Riesling capitals of the world—volume-wise, at least. When planted in cooler sites, this grape thrives, and in Washington, it develops good acidity and lovely aromatics. For the past decade, Chateau Ste. Michelle has been the largest Riesling producer in the world, selling more than 800,000 cases per year—more than any other single producer—with eight offerings, from its wildly popular dry Riesling, at $10 a bottle, to the luscious (and dear) Eroica Single Berry Select at $200 per 375-milliliter bottle.
But the July gathering was not just about promoting the Chateau Ste. Michelle portfolio. Luminaries from Germany, the land of Riesling, touched down, including the bespectacled Ernst Loosen, whose family has cultivated the Dr. Loosen winery in the Mosel region of Germany for 200 years. He also collaborates with Chateau Ste. Michelle on its four Eroica Rieslings. Also in attendance was Johannes Leitz, the heir to the distinguished Rheingau winery established in 1744 and where some of the first vines of Riesling were recorded in the 15th century; and edgy producers such as Clement Busch, with his small family winery in the Mosel region. Busch’s beautifully aromatic, biodynamically grown Rieslings were some of the hits of the conference, proving that when herbicides, pesticides, commercial fertilizers and chemicals are not used in the winemaking process, this delicate grape can best show its bedazzling gown of aromas of apricot and peach blossom, lime peel and fresh tarragon notes.
The potential downside of putting Washington wines alongside those from Germany, which has set the bar so high, could be that our wines won’t show as well. But I felt that wasn’t the case. Many American wines held their own in blind tastings, and eyebrows were raised as the names of favorite wineries were revealed, with Washington, Oregon, Idaho, New York and even Michigan producing some balanced, delicious wines. The one thing that all of these wines have in common is the fact that they are great wines to pair with Northwest foods—fish, clams, vegetable dishes and, in the case of the driest Rieslings, even oysters. Washington Riesling showed well with another Northwest icon, smoked salmon. At one of the Riesling Rendezvous food events, tasters got a chance to try a variety of Rieslings with different kinds of smoked salmon, from gravlax style to hot smoked wild king. The result was a series of “aha” moments—a slightly off-dry style of Riesling paired extremely well with all of the different levels of smoke.
SHANNON'S WASHINGTON REISLING PICKS
Anew 2012 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $11
Created by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates this year, this off-dry blend of Riesling (88 percent), Gewürztraminer (10 percent) and Muscat Canelli (2 percent) is made by Wendy Stuckey, an Australian who has mastered the art of blending and coaxing the best from this grape. Fresh peach and orange blossom aromas are followed by citrus and spice flavors with juicy acidity, and a slight sweetness that makes this wine a natural with spicy or full-flavored foods. Pairs with: Smoked salmon Caesar salad
Pacific Rim 2011 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $14
This Riesling-focused winery makes many different styles, and marks them all with the International Riesling Foundation’s sweet-to-dry Taste Profile. Organic wines have come a long way and this wine has broken out, with aromas of lime peel and lemon, and a fresh acidity balanced with a medium sweetness. Pairs with: Fresh scallops and green beans sautéed with garlic and red pepper flakes
Mercer Estates 2011 Mercer Canyons Riesling, Yakima Valley, $13
This, like many Rieslings, was harvested at night and treated with extreme care in order to preserve the fresh fruit flavors of the wine. The Brooks Vineyard is a cooler site in the Yakima Valley, and 2011 was a cool year—all good signs for a great Riesling. And sure enough, this wine shows bright and lovely peach and orange aromas, with an off-dry sweetness and juicy acidity. Pairs with: Dungeness crab served cold with black pepper and a squeeze of lime
Charles Smith 2012 Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Ancient Lakes, $12
One of the first wines to bear the new Ancient Lakes American Viticultural Area designation, this wine is an all around delightful food wine from the Evergreen Vineyard, one of the best Riesling vineyards in the state, just up from the Columbia Gorge near George. Exploding with aromas of lime and orange peel, with a bit of tropical fruit zing this wine has good acidity and a long, soft finish. Pairs with: Sushi, such as a smoked eel or spicy tuna roll
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Eroica Gold Riesling, Columbia Valley, $30
Winemaker Bob Bertheau worked with German wine producer Ernst Loosen to produce a new “best of both worlds” Riesling, the Eroica Gold. The Viewcrest Vineyard in the Yakima Valley contributes fruit with bright acidity, and the 30-year-old Horse Heaven Vineyard brings lush, ripe fruit. What makes it special is that it is made with a bit of wine affected by Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot,” which gives some ice wines and dessert wines their special aromas of honey and a bit of marmalade in the finish. Pairs with: Blue cheese and apple tart with hazelnut crust