by David Falchek
Like a character in a Shakespearean tragedy Riesling has been on top of the world and faced an ignominious fall.
A century ago, the finest Mosel Riesling commanded higher prices than first growth Bordeaux. Its place in the wine world disrupted first by wars then by greatly relaxed wine laws, Riesling became associated with low-end sweet wines.
Over the last 20 years, Riesling’s fortune has changed.
Riesling’s mishandling has been forgotten by a new generation of chefs, sommeliers, and consumers. The rise in more subtly flavored Asian and fusion cuisine made Riesling a choice on wine lists and the table.
From its ancestral homeland in Germany and the Saxon-tinged Alsace, Riesling has spread to cool climate regions in the United States such as Washington and the Finger Lakes region of New York. Fine Riesling is emerging from unsuspected regions in California and Australia’s Edna Valley.
Once reviled, Riesling is in revival. Last year Riesling’s total dollar sales grew by 26 percent, second only to Pinot Noir at 31 percent, according to A.C. Nielsen. That was after more than doubling in 2005. Riesling is the fourth hottest-selling white wine in America, behind Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
When British wine guru Jancis Robinson was asked her favorite varietals, she responded “Riesling, Riesling, and Riesling.” It’s hardly a wonder. The grape is one of the most versatile, yielding food-friendly dry wines, luscious ice wines and every style in between. Riesling soaks up the terroir where it is grown and expresses it in the glass. As consumers turn from extracted, alcoholic Chardonnays they discovered the lightness and fruit of Riesling.
The New World
Riesling’s first outpost in the New World was the Finger Lakes region of New York where Ukrainian immigrant Dr. Konstantin Frank planted the variety in the 1950s.
As mass-produced Rieslings flood the market, Finger Lakes producers such as Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars are positioning themselves as premium producers.
Washington State has become Riesling’s North American epicenter and home to prolific producers such as Hogue, Columbia Crest, and Chateau Ste. Michelle, which bottled 500,000 cases of 2006 Riesling. The regions that waited for Riesling to emerge as the Anything-But-Chardonnay grape watched as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Viognier became white hypes.
“In the 1970s, we couldn’t give Riesling to New York City restaurants,” said Fred Frank, president of Vinifera Wine Cellars. “Now, we’re on allocation.”
The World of Riesling
In general, domestic Rieslings show more fruit and even dry versions have some residual sugar. Alsatians are characteristically dry, balanced, and terrior-driven, though occasionally exhibit generous fruit.
High-end German Riesling have been consistently good in recent vintages, however, those $20 and under can be irregular even in these good years. As Riesling becomes embraced at the table, look for more dry Riesling imported from Germany. Upstart regions such as the Eden Valley and the nooks of the West Coast can be expected to sharpen their Rieslings.
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