Riesling: America’s Favorite Wine Grape?

It’s not of course.  Chardonnay still holds that position.  But to listen to wine professionals, it should be. 

Belinda Chang, the talented and charmingly enthusiastic sommelier at the Modern in New York effuses, “I’ve yet to find a food that doesn’t go well with Riesling.”  (Alsace Wines has adopted the clever–and appropriate–promotional phrase, “Just Add Food,” to reemphasize Chang’s statement.)

Or read the opening page of this summer’s wine list at RN 74, arguably San Francisco’s most wine friendly restaurant–there’s a 1999 Lorentz Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg by the glass.  (The food is also sensational).  It quotes Paul Grieco of Terroir Wine Bar in New York, “Let’s begin with the obvious or maybe not so obvious. . . Riesling is not an inherently sweet wine. . . .What needs to be made abundantly clear is that when the Riesling grape is grown in the perfect terroir, it can produce some of the most sublime, well-balanced wines on the planet.”

Double Duty

Both are right on the money.  The plethora of styles of Riesling–from enamel-cleansingly dry to delectably sweet–means it matches a similarly diverse range of foods.  Riesling is equally at home with spice-laden Szechwan fare as with a filet of sole in a suave beurre blanc sauce.  In Alsace, their dry Riesling replaces Beaujolais–both in the kitchen and on the table–with great success in coq au vin.

Plus, Riesling fills the seemingly opposite roles of being a superb aperitif and the ideal foil for food, a trait that is essential for American consumers who tend to consume as much wine before, as with, a meal.  This dual pattern of consumption drives winemakers crazy.  An aperitif-style wine needs to have low acidity–or at least a roundness, often from residual sugar–since it is consumed in the absence of food.  A wine destined for the table needs supporting acid to keep it interesting throughout a meal and cut the flavors on the plate.  (You don’t see many people sipping high acid Italian Barbera before dinner, but watch the bottles disappear once the pasta course hits the table).  Winemakers intent on selling in the American market continually walk the tightrope to achieve this balance.

Riesling can do double duty.  When it’s wearing its off-dry hat, engaging fruitiness makes it appealing as a stand-alone aperitif, especially in warm weather, and its uplifting vivacity provides endless enjoyment at the table.

Riesling Rendezvous

So, if Riesling seems to be the perfect wine, why isn’t it the country’s most popular?  This question was just one of many discussed at the recently concluded 3rd annual Riesling Rendezvous, a conference of Riesling producers from the around the world (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and Austria) hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington state) and Dr. Ernst Loosen (Mosel, in western Germany).  The conference is a fabulous opportunity for wine lovers because it is one of the venues that focuses on a single variety, is free of commercial bias and is open to the public.  (New Zealand and Oregon both host similar conferences that focus on Pinot Noir).

Blind Tastings

Consumers heard panels of world-renowned Riesling producers discuss dry and then off-dry Riesling that they and the audience tasted blind.  How reassuring for all of us who have embarrassed ourselves in blind tastings to hear Wilhelm Weil, one of Germany’s top producers, admit, “I can’t tell whether this Riesling comes from the Old or New World.”  Or listen to Nik Weiss of St. Urbans-Hof and Egon Muller of Egon Muller-Scharzhof, two of the Mosel’s top producers whose estates have centuries of experience between them, praise a wine, which was revealed to be from a winery barely 30 years old, Glenora Wine Cellars.  The wine was their 2009 Seneca Lake (New York) 2009 Riesling.  Steve DiFrancesco, Genora’s winemaker was bursting with pride.

The collaboration and exchange among these competitors was illuminating.  Etienne Hugel, from the famous Alsace family-run firm, Hugel & Fils, was intensely tasting and evaluating Riesling from Austria, which are stylistically similar to those from Alsace and then was discussing them with Willi Bründlmeyer, the famed Austrian producer, as well as consumers.

Michigan and Finger Lakes Riesling

Another highlight of the two and one-half day conference was an opportunity to taste wines that one don’t normally run across.  How many consumers know that Michigan is home to wonderful Riesling?  I didn’t, but now I do. The Old Mission Peninsula in Western Michigan juts into the lake where the moderating influences of the Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan–similar to Lake Ontario’s affect on the Niagara Peninsula (also good Riesling) and the Finger Lakes’ affect on the upstate New York vineyards–allow the vines to survive the harsh winter.

Speaking of upstate New York, there was the reminder that stunning Rieslings come from the Finger Lakes.  One taste from two vintages (2008 and 1995) of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Dry Riesling reminded us just how beautifully these wines develop with bottle age.  Frederick Frank, the current head of the winery, informed the audience that Dr. Frank planted the vines in the 1950s, using phylloxera resistant rootstock.  Hence they have old vines since they’ve not needed to replant.

Why Isn’t Riesling America’s Favorite?

Riesling’s popularity is on the rise.  It is America’s fastest growing white variety according, Ted Baseler, President of Chateau Ste. Michelle, but starting out from a low base helps explain what appears to be enormous growth.  Nonetheless, Riesling’s rising popularity coincidences with American’s love affair with ethnic food, cuisines for which the varietal is ideally suited.

Stuart Pigott, the British-born author and Riesling authority who lives and writes in Berlin, noted that Riesling in the United States, as recently as 1985, represented a badly made “cash flow” wine that had the reputation of being white, sweet and cheap.  During the last 20 years, American winemakers have “cracked the Riesling code,” according to Pigott and are no longer trying to emulate European methods, but rather focusing on local conditions and seeking working with Riesling to express their unique terroir.

Ernst Loosen, from Germany’s Dr. Loosen Estate, pointed out that Riesling’s inherent contradiction can confuse consumers.  Riesling can make either a refreshing, somewhat innocuous wine or a great one because it is “transparent” and allows you to taste through the grape itself to “see” something about where it was grown.

All agreed it was the acid and the balance and interplay between it and the sugar–the “tension”–that was essential for great Riesling.  Wendy Stuckey, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white winemaker, articulated it beautifully when saying, “The acidity in Riesling is like tannins in red wines; you need to manage it, but it is a central part.”

The Biggest Challenge

The diversity of Riesling is its best asset and its worst enemy.   Riesling’s style is enormous depending on where it’s planted and how it’s made.  Riesling producers’ biggest hurdle is letting the consumer know the style of the wine–dry, off dry, sweet or very sweet–from the label.  All styles can be fabulous, but all can disappoint if you’re expecting a dry one from Australia or Washington State, and wind up with a sweet one for your oysters.  I’ve had more than one consumer–even winemakers–tell me they’d never order a Riesling unless they knew the producer and hence, the style of the wine.

A Solution

Finally, a solution to this problem of labeling is on the way.  The International Riesling Foundation, under the prodding of the noted wine journalist, Dan Berger, has proposed, and many Riesling producers have adopted, a Riesling taste scale–a small diagram affixed to the bottle that indicates the level of sweetness of the wine.  Look for it on your next bottle of Riesling.  If this system catches on worldwide, we may indeed see Riesling’s popularity surpass Chardonnay’s.

Wine lovers would be wise to contact Chateau Ste. Michelle to secure a place at next year’s Riesling Rendezvous.

July 27, 2010