Spring Whites to Savor

We March into spring with a twice-told tale: Last month, we revisited merlot, great wine brought low by shabby winemaking and shifty marketing, then revived at its nadir, to become, again, yummy quaff. This month, the white side, same tale: Riesling is one of the world’s great grapes. The white wines made from Riesling grapes vary widely, from bone dry to heavenly sweet, yielding wines adaptable to dinner courses from aperitifs to desserts. Rieslings are usually vinified to be low-alcohol/high-acid wines, matching fish or fowl, even salads, but especially friendly to spicy Asian dishes, stir-fries, curries and vegan fare.

Riesling is among the oldest wine grape varieties known, perhaps genetically related to wild grapes (though that’s unproven). Riesling wines, depending on where and how they’re grown, can deliver a broad spectrum of aromas/flavors: floral or fruity (think ripe pears, green apples), spicy, citrusy, mineral, even stony. Some exude a petroleum note, much desired by some tasters, repellant to others. Tastes vary. Rieslings vary, too.

Despite their manifest versatility, for decades Rieslings suffered from weak wine-making and conscienceless selling that flooded markets with sugary plonk that sold (literally) by the gallon, establishing a reputation that has been nearly impossible to overcome. One result has been lagging sales of the wines, especially the wonderful dry-style Rieslings of Alsace; often, too, the great Rieslings of Germany languished on shelves, many of them trapped by tradition-bound labels so ornate as to be nearly unreadable, especially for linguistically shy American consumers.

Recently, though, winemakers all over the habitable world (and Canada) have endeavored to revive interest in Rieslings, improving crop management and vinification techniques. Australian winemakers have had remarkable success with Rieslings. In the U.S., winemakers in New York’s Finger Lakes and the Northwest have been producing very fine wines from Riesling. Recognition has followed.

In the current issue of Wine Spectator, the magazine’s resident expert on Oregon, Harvey Steiman, gives a hefty shout-out for the “superb” 2012 vintage, especially, of course, the “ripe, elegant” pinot noirs (still our best wine — or anybody’s). At the end of his review, Steiman displays charts of the best wines, then charts his selections of “Top Values”; oddly, among those are listed the Elk Cove 2012 Riesling ($19) and Willamette Valley Vineyards 2013 Riesling ($12.)

Brief historical factoid: When, in 1961, the late, great Richard Sommer pioneered Oregon’s post-Prohibition wine industry, he planted in the dazzling Umpqua Valley, establishing HillCrest Vineyards. Sommer was really enamored with Riesling, though he also planted pinot noir and other varietals.

Sommer passed in 2009. But before then (2003), the site was bought by Dyson and Susan DeMara; they have refreshed HillCrest, even adding a distillery. Sadly, though, Sommer’s original Riesling vines contracted phylloxera, a nasty bug, and had to be destroyed. HillCrest 1978 Riesling (tasted in 1991) will remain a benchmark, and proof of the grape’s grand future in this region. Rieslings, we should note, are among the longest-lived wines and can age beautifully.

It irks us a bit to admit that Riesling’s greatest successes have come from our neighbors to the north. Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM), Washington’s flagship and largest producer, bottles two million cases of Rieslings in various styles and prices them competitively for sales in supermarkets, not just specialty wine shops. Clever devils, in their tasting rooms they simply ask visitors to sample the Rieslings — “Just taste these” — then rack up receipts. CSM’s 2013 Dry Riesling ($7) is merely excellent, crisp, citrusy. CSM 2013 Cold Creek Vineyard ($16) is slightly sweet, with floral/fruit notes that shine through spicy dishes. CSM, in 1999, partnered with Dr. Ernst Loosen, the great vintner of Germany’s Mosel Valley, birthing Eroica 2013 ($20), a superb, stylish Riesling, acutely balanced, sweet without being cloying. 

In researching this column, Mole, Kat, friends and I were compelled to taste many Oregon Rieslings (nasty job, right?). Among the best, we’d include Steiman’s picks (Elk Cove and WVV) and add Montinore Estate 2013 Almost Dry Riesling ($14) and Anne Amie 2012 Estate Dry Riesling ($17), along with Brandborg Riesling (any vintage) and Foris 2012 Rogue Valley Riesling ($11); stiff ticket but superb, Trisaetum 2013 Coast Range Dry ($26).

Locally, our faves among Rieslings include Territorial 2013 Equinox Vineyard ($14.50) and Sweet Cheeks 2013 ($12), both delish.

Rieslings are no longer your grandpa’s glug. These are exciting, satisfying, versatile whites bringing zing to your spring nosh: Just try some; just taste. Enjoy the very old, made new.