riesling indeed does rule

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nicolas Quillé, winemaker and general manager for Pacific Rim, the (almost) all riesling project headquartered in the Columbia valley, posted up some new stats from Nielsen on his Facebook page.

“Looking over the 13 weeks Nielsen data,” writes Quillé, “riesling is showing the fastest growth among all major varietals. Riesling is ahead of chardonnay, white zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, syrah, zinfandel, pinot noir and sangiovese, growing at 8.2% versus last year. Now riesling is clearly a larger category than zinfandel (believe it or not) and I would not be surprised if within 6 months riesling takes over syrah. Riesling now represents 2.5% of all wine sold in the USA which is about twice what it was 3 years ago. Much deserved growth for a fantastic varietal.”

Even when you take away the completely understandable excess enthusiasm from this producer, who is heavily committed to the varietal, the trend clearly speaks volumes about changing wine tastes in the U.S. The move away from heavily-oaked, malolactically-adjusted white wines toward “naked” or “free” or “unwooded” – in other words, stainless steel fermented – varietals is well established. Why? Because without all the wood and flab, you can actually taste the grape and even the terroir. Once you start to taste the grape, you start to realize that most chardonnay doesn’t have much in the way of flavor. There are certainly exceptions – especially from Oregon (featured in an earlier blog post) – but overall, chardonnay is dull as dishwater without the oak. But riesling shines all by itself. Unoaked, unblended, unfettered.

A concurrent trend toward aromatic white wines is also floating the riesling boat. It may have begun with the somewhat puzzling popularity of pinot grigio (Santa Margherita! – what’s that about?), but it’s moved over into the sauvignon blanc (thank you New Zealand) and riesling camps. Aromas that include something beyond buttered popcorn and wood chips add terrific complexity, hence enjoyment, to wine. Great riesling has those wonderful floral, citrus, honey and mineral aromas in abundance.

Finally, there is the price factor. Two of the best rieslings made in Washington – arguably two of the best rieslings made in America – are Eroica and Poet’s Leap. Both sell for around $20. Pacific Rim offers several single vineyard (and one biodynamic) bottlings that cost over $30 – still cheap by great wine standards. Their regular bottlings – sensibly labeled “Dry” and “Sweet” and “Organic” sell for around $12. What other varietal made in America tops out at such low prices?

As I prepare my annual Paul Gregutt Top 100 Washington Wine list (to be published in about a month) I find many rieslings made the final cut. Among them: Poet’s Leap, Eroica, Whitman Cellars, Pacific Rim, Trust, Nefarious Cellars, Gamache, Snoqualmie, and Airfield Estates. On the other hand, chardonnays were in short supply.



Anonymous said...

Do you or any of your cohorts know of anybody (maybe PR?) doing different styles of riesling similar to the Kabinett, Spatlese Auslese, etc., here in WA? It seems given the talent we have out here, it is only a matter of time, but I've yet to see something like this under a single producer.

Wawineman said...

Amongst your exceptions for chardonnays, you neglected to mention any from Washington. Does that imply you consider Oregon chards to be of higher quality than, say Buty's Conner Lee Vineyard or Abeja's or even Mark Ryan's?
I'm also surprised Efeste's 'Evergreen' riesling appears to not have made your 'top 100'. Brennan Leighton used to make the Eroica riesling when he was at Chateau Ste. Michelle, no?

PaulG said...

This is a tiny preview of the Top 100. As in year's past, each winery is listed only once, for one wine. This is not an all-riesling list. So when the full list is published, you will most likely find your favorite winery represented by the wine that scored highest from them this past year.

Chris said...

Just a note to the 'anonymous' question above regarding Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese.

Many of the american rieslings you drink everyday (let's not forget the Michiganders and the New Yorkers) are one and the same with all of these German QMP terms (Kab, Spat, Aus, etc.) indicative of harvest sugars and residual sweetness levels in the resulting wines. In the US we simply don't have the same rigidity within qualifying wine labeling regulations for these terms like the Germans. You'll see terms like Dry, Off-Dry, Semi-Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet, Late Harvest, etc - but they're at the winery's behest for creating an explanation of the style so its easier to identify for you: the friendly riesling fanatic.

So - fact is - you've been drinking all of these wines you speak of the whole time, just without the German nomenclature. Cheers!

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