Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley is renowned around the world for its riesling grapes.
At the turn of the century, riesling was the most expensive grape variety in the world and during the past decade it’s been experiencing a renaissance. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Washington state, where the 2016 harvest of riesling grapes was a close second to the perennially popular chardonnay. According to the International Riesling foundation, Washington has become the largest riesling-producing region in North America.
Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley is renowned around the world for its riesling grapes. The dry climate, with long sunny days and cool evenings, creates ideal conditions for intense aroma and flavor development in the ripening grapes. Cool evening temperatures help retain the grape’s natural acidity, essential for quality riesling.
Many people think of riesling as a sweet wine, but Washington winemakers lean toward drier styles that are bright, clean, and pair well with seafood and other delicate flavors. You’ll taste hints of peach, citrus lime and mandarin in this elegant, sometimes slightly effervescent character.
“The grape’s sweetness is dependent on the area in which it’s grown,” says David Rosenthal, white winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, one of the world’s largest producers of riesling. “It’s a transparent grape, taking on the characteristics of the soil. The acidity level provides the backbone for the wine’s character. Riesling’s fruity profile – peaches, apricots, with a hint of spice, may make it appear sweeter than it really is, but as long as the acidity and residual sugar are in balance, the wine will not appear cloyingly sweet.”
Parts of California, France and Germany also are known for rieslings. Vineyards in the warmer areas of California produce grapes with lower levels of acidity and a riper fruit profile. French varieties generally have an oilier profile because the soil is rich and moist. The dry soil in Columbia Valley is much closer to that of Germany’s Mosel Valley.
“Our rieslings tend to be more refined and delicate than those of California and France,” Rosenthal says. “Even the sweeter varieties won’t overpower, but rather complement, the complex flavors of a fruit and cheese platter.”
There is, perhaps, more of a similarity to some of the German rieslings. In fact, Ernst Loosen, owner of Dr. Loosen estate, which has a 200-year tradition of producing riesling in Germany’s Mosel region, approached Chateau Ste. Michelle for a joint venture to craft an ultra-premium riesling from Washington grapes. The result is Eroica.
Named after Beethoven’s “Third Symphony,” Eroica debuted with the 1999 vintage. Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winemaker Bob Bertheau collaborates with Ernst Loosen on everything from site selection, irrigation and canopy management in the vineyards, to determining the final blend.
Chateau Ste. Michelle was catapulted into the national spotlight when its 1972 Johannisberg riesling won the now-famous blind tasting of nineteen white rieslings sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Chateau Ste. Michelle crafts riesling wines in a wide range of style, from crisp Dry Riesling, to the medium-dry Columbia Valley, to the decadent, sweet Ethos Late Harvest Riesling. The Dry Riesling is popular due to its price point and versatility.
Riesling is a food-friendly wine. Dry varieties pair perfectly with fresh Northwest seafood, including Dungeness crab, oysters and mussels. Sweeter varieties stand up well to Thai and other spicy Asian cuisine.
“We like to say there’s a riesling for everyone,” Rosenthal says. “Many times people are skeptical to try a riesling at a tasting because they think of it as excessively sweet. But once they do, they’re quite pleasantly surprised.”