Riesling in North America
by: Dan Berger
One of the nation’s most important and fast-growing wine categories is Dry Riesling. Right behind it is Medium Dry Riesling. We needn’t recount the number of places that can make this excellent wine, with its great opportunity as an alternative white as well as a wine of enormous cellar potential.
So the surprisingly cooler weather that most western North American viticultural regions experienced in 2010, notably in California and Washington State, the country’s largest Riesling producer, is either a major benefit or a huge drawback, depending on how wine makers deal with the grape and the wine.
Sweeter Riesling isn’t difficult to make or to justify. Newcomers to wine seem to prefer sweeter wines, regardless of the grape from which they come, and that includes some rather soft Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots that aren’t very flattering to the grape. As a result, sweeter Rieslings have been far more widely available. Used at picnics and especially for those who don’t like dry wine, they became a cheaper, easy to serve accompaniment to hot dogs and potato salad.
Most of this was not fine wine. In part because of its lower price, all Rieslings were tarred with the same brush, dooming the grape itself. Of course we all know that the grape was not to blame. It was the grape as grown in inappropriate regions (warm), and made into wines that were simply too simple and sweet to be considered very fine. In fact, to this day, a few “successful” (i.e., they sell) Rieslings are made with other grapes to help their aromas become exotic, such as Muscat and Gewurztraminer.
In the last decade or so, more and more Americans have seen the greatness of drier styles of Riesling, most notably from districts that are cool enough to grow the grape in ways that make the dry versions sublime.
Now along comes an unexpected development: a vintage in the west that is so cool that the grape stayed on the vine longer than usual, developing dramatic flavors that can make a great dry wine. But will it be? We’ll come back to this question in three paragraphs. But first:
It is a category that exists with a halo Down Under. A huge percentage of the Australian wine-drinking population loves the wine, which is almost all entirely dry. Australia has More than 15,000 acres of Riesling growing, about twice as much as the entire United States, and little of it is made with sugar.
And Australian Riesling is catching on with Americans as a greater number of retailers, sommeliers, and wine lovers discover the wine. But thus far, it is not a major movement in the United States. True, superb dry versions from Germany (Trocken and halb-trocken) and Alsace, France, as well as Washington, Oregon, New York, Michigan and elsewhere have joined with the drier versions from northern and central California to create a new category that is not only slowly budding, but finding passionate adherents among wine lovers.
So now back to the query posed three paragraphs above, and the answer lies in how wine makers decide to treat the grapes from cool 2010. The flavors, to be sure, are all there, and the only “drawback” of the vintage is the acid.
It is high. Cooler vintages always give wine makers more acid than they need (and usually want) in all grapes, and with Riesling this is a tremendous benefit. In warmer years, acid additions are commonplace as acids are not as high.
With 2010 Riesling, the natural acidity was so high and pH levels so low that truly magnificent dry Riesling can be made. But many wine makers, and especially those with “sophisticated” marketing departments, fear high-acid wines. They assume the consumer will not appreciate them, and the result is that acids in a vintage such as this one tend to be compromised.
Wine makers can raise the pH of any wine by adding potassium bicarbonate, which has the effect of softening the wine, and making any residual sugars left in it to be that much more “visible” to the taste. Done perfectly, a Riesling may be benefited from such a procedure. But not always. Some people fear the consumer backlash against bone dry Riesling. But I can tell a story that may add depth to this subject.
At a major Riesling event in Canandaigua, N.Y., this past summer, I was asked to conduct an hour-long symposium on different styles of Riesling. The first wine I poured was the fabulous Tierce, the dry wine made as a joint venture of three great New York wineries, Red Newt, Anthony Road, and Fox Run.
The wine is dry. Indeed, at a symposium such as I conducted, about 75 persons were asked if they liked the wine. Most of them, newcomers to wines this dry, disliked it. I then conducted an experiment: I asked them to imagine they were just served some fresh pan-fried trout with butter and lemon and perhaps a trace of tarragon. And then I asked if they would sip the wine again and see what their reaction would be to it, knowing that the main dish they were imagining eating would make a difference.
I then asked for a show of hands how many people could imagine liking the wine under those circumstances. About 20 people raised their hands. No, it’s not a solution to the issue of bone-dry Riesling, but it gives us a clue that a tiny bit of marketing that includes Riesling as a dinner table companion can work to educate people who may be unfamiliar with wines like this.
The 2010 growing season gives us the chance to make a lot of wines like this, dry and loaded with minerality and character. Yes, it can be a challenge to the palates of newcomers, but for Riesling lovers, 2010 is a rare opportunity to make wines that excite those who are willing to try really dry Riesling and come back for more.
If, on the other hand, wine makers take the easy road and soften and sweeten their 2010 Rieslings, they may be squandering an opportunity that comes along only infrequently.
Dan Berger publishes Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (www.vintageexperiences.com), writes for numerous other publications, and is well-known for his expertise and passion for Riesling.