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Riesling Rendezvous highlights the noble wine

The drive from Seattle north to Woodinville takes about 45 minutes. Beyond the cityscape, the warehouse district and neat suburbs, green fields emerge. As the scenery evolved into small town agriculture, the sign at the entrance to the historic mansion-winery of Chateau Ste. Michelle announcing the start of the bi-annual Riesling Rendezvous was hard to miss.

The Grand Tasting

The grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle were bustling with 13 tents packed with riesling producers from dozens of states and countries. The grand tasting highlighted many of the 70 producers from seven countries that were represented at the three-day riesling conference.
When attending the tasting, I take special note of the wineries at the entrance to see who has the showcase position. This year the Idaho Wine Commission had the prime real estate and were a regional wine sponsor of the event. I recall meeting the Michigan contingent at the prime spot a half dozen years ago; production of their riesling is rising.
Colter's Creek Jon Harding
The Idahoans were an enthusiast, knowledgeable bunch ready to share some good riesling and history. Fifteen years ago there were 11 wineries in the state; now there are 50. “The climate in Idaho is ideal for riesling, cool night temperatures, and people care about the land, their friends and families,” said Jon Harding, assistant winemaker at Colter’s Creek in Juliaetta. His riesling from Lewis-Clark AVA grapes was lively and balanced. I would not have guessed Idaho for the provenance of the Colter’s Creek or Williamson Vineyards’ riesling.

Other American-focused tents exhibited the same enthusiasm. I spoke with Harry Peterson-Nedry, co-owner of Chehalem in Newberg, Ore. and a long time riesling fanatics. “Oregon is going through its second riesling incarnation. In the 1990s it was the most widely planted white grape. We could sell it quickly before the pinot noir was ready. We organized the ORA, Oregon Riesling Alliance., to avoid riesling becoming lost among chardonnay and pinot grigio.”

Aware that the Alsace riesling producers were a seminar sponsor, I asked Frédéric Blanck for a taste of his 2001 Rosenburg riesling. The still vivid fruit and acid balance of the Blanck reminded me why riesling is called the noble grape and why it is one of the few whites that is age-able.

State of Riesling

The next day Ted Baesler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates opened the conference by retelling the story of what he called the Judgment of Los Angeles. “In 1972 our riesling won the LA Wine Competition. This was a huge event for us and put Chateau Ste. Michelle and riesling on the wine map. We are committed to the quality and food-friendliness of riesling.”

Baesler continued by painting a positive picture of the market for riesling with domestic riesling sales growing by 18 percent. “We’ve radically improved quality in the last decade. Two years ago we were worried by the competition from moscato but not now.”
Ernest Loosen, owner and winegrower of Dr. Loosen in the Mosel, addressed the challenges of marketing riesling given its wildly diverse range of flavor profiles. “What is the simplest message about riesling?” asked Loosen. “Simply say it’s complicated. Every wine gets more complicated over time as grapes are grown in more appellations and more single vineyards are produced. The complexity is why we love the stuff.”

Author and riesling fanatic Stuart Pigott commented on what he labeled the American Riesling Revolution with production increasing, led by Calif, N.Y., and Ore. “Riesling has become an American wine,” exclaimed Pigott. “Meanwhile, think of another wine that has a global community like riesling. For sure, not cabernet sauvignon.”

A hot topic was climate change at a seminar presented by Pro. Hans Schultz of Geisenheim University and Prof. Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University. Two major points were discussed. Riesling, they emphasized, is an elastic variety in that it can grow in cool to warm climates making the future brighter for riesling than other varietals. New growing regions may open up from Oxford, U.K. to Scandinavia and southern Chile. The impact of soil as a climate player was another key component of the discussion. Beyond latitude and warming trends, the color of soil affects the plant’s response to the environment.

Tastings and seminars

At the core of the Riesling Rendezvous are two, three-hour morning tastings featuring dry riesling and then sweet. Quality was generally high from around the world from the Framingham Wines of Marlborough, New Zealand, crafted by Andrew Hedley, to the Ravines Wine Cellars dry wines presented by co-owner Morten Hallgren. One of my favorite comments from the tasting session leaders was made by Andrea Robinson, MS, during the sweet riesling tasting when residual sugar levels often had no correlation to perceived sweetness. “Some of these wines have neon acidity.”

During the lunch sponsored by the Idaho Wine Commission, we heard more about the potential for Idaho riesling. With a long vinous history from 1864, the vintners highlighted their intensely diverse soils from volcanic to sandy. The state is attracting excellent winemakers as a place with great terroir and where people care about their land, family and friends. I enjoyed both Cinder Wines 2004 Off-dry riesling and Colter’s Creek 2014 bottling with the pairing of roasted cod with Thai green coconut curry and flash-fried sweet chili green beans. The Ste. Chappelle Winery 2014 Special Harvest Riesling was dessert by itself.

At another lunch, I sat next to Jean Frédéric Hugel of Famille Hugel of Riquewihr, France, and Martin Sinkoff, vice president and director of marketing for Frederick Wildman, Hugel’s importer.  Hugel emphasized that his family’s winery has been making dry riesling, the go-to style for food pairing.

Later, at the Alsace Rock and Riesling Seminar, I tasted Hugel’s outstanding Famille Hugel Estate 2012 riesling with its complex nose and heady blend of acidity, salty and fatty flavors. Hugel explained that Hugel Grossi Laüe Riesling signifies the finest vineyards in Alsace and represents an equivalent to the German Grosses Gewächs or the Burgundian Grand Cru.

With its violent geological history of collapsed layers on top of each other, Alsace has more diverse soils than any other French wine region. Climate change may not have such a major impact due to the depth of the vine roots in many areas. We tasted examples of aromatic rieslings from granite soils to the powerful structure of rieslings from marl-limestone soils and the smoky examples from volcanic soils.
The seminar reinforced the optimism I had heard from Hugel and Sinkoff. Hugel had noted that his family uses modern techniques in their air conditioned cellar but respects the land. “We haven’t been following trends. We take this grape indigenous to Austria and make it in a simple way in our town of Riquewihr which is known for its 16th century architecture and riesling. Consider that there are 31 wineries in a town of 1,200 in habitants.”

Sinkoff of Frederick Wildman is a booster of Alsace riesling. But with his perspective on the industry, he honors the role that riesling is playing in more countries around the world and added “Let’s face it. Chardonnay may not hold the grip it once did on world-wide demand for white wine. Sauvignon blanc and Sancerre are very popular along with pinot grigio. But riesling has a chance to rise in the market among this group.”


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