Dunne on wine: Cool nights, cooling rieslings

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

The "Summer of Riesling" is drawing to a close. Unlike summer itself, it left Sacramento largely untouched. By my count, just two Sacramento restaurants – Enotria and Blackbird – participated in "Summer of Riesling," an accelerating campaign to raise the profile of one of the world's more enduring yet misunderstood wines.

"Summer of Riesling" was inspired by New York City restaurateur Paul Grieco, who decreed in 2008 that riesling would be the only white wine he would pour at his four Terroir restaurants – 30 by the glass, 100 by the bottle – throughout the summer.

Yes, Grieco is somewhat crazy about riesling. That restaurants named Terroir would be the incubator for his affectionate marketing scheme was perfectly fitting, given that wine enthusiasts generally concur that riesling is virtually unparalleled in how it represents its places of origin.

Last year, the International Riesling Foundation picked up on Grieco's notion and began to promote it here and abroad. This summer, about 300 restaurants and wine bars and 100 wine shops in 32 states signed on for the "Summer of Riesling." At the least, they all agreed to serve at least three rieslings by the glass through the summer. Northern California restaurants to participate this year include the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Restaurant 1833 in Monterey, Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog in San Francisco, and Enotria and Blackbird in Sacramento, which teamed up for a riesling- focused dinner last month.

Next year, who knows, maybe more restaurants in and about Sacramento will participate.

Riesling, after all, is a wine ideal for coping with the area's torrid days and slow-to-cool evenings. It's served chilled, it's inherently refreshing, and in structure and acidity it's an unusually versatile companion at the table, perfect for the fresh ingredients and light dishes of summer.

Not much riesling is grown around Sacramento, further testimony to the region's long hot summers. Riesling shows best when it is from relatively cool climates. Hereabouts, if you want to grow riesling, you'd best look to the higher and somewhat cooler reaches of the Sierra foothills.

That's what Dick Bush did nearly four decades ago when he switched from being a Stanford engineer to being an El Dorado County farmer. In 1973, atop Apple Hill at 3,000 feet up the sunset slope of the Sierra, he and his wife, Leslie, planted the usual foothill suspects – zinfandel, petite sirah, merlot – as well as some varieties rarely seen in the Mother Lode, including riesling.

Today, the Bush family continues to tend about 4 acres of riesling for their popular brand, Madroña Vineyards. They've shown vintage after vintage that the sunny days and chilly nights of the upper foothills not only yield flavorful and crisp apples, they produce flavorful and crisp rieslings. Paul Bush, the couple's son now in charge of winemaking, customarily makes three or four versions of riesling each year, the number determined by the nature of the growing year.

Only every three to five years, for example, do weather conditions conspire to produce the vineyard mold variously called "botrytis cinera" and "pourriture noble," which translates as "noble rot," which darkens and shrivels grapes, leaving them looking ghastly but also with a high concentration of sugar that results in dessert wines of astounding amplitude.

In any given year, Paul Bush is likely to turn out 800 to 1,000 cases of riesling, the workhorse of which is an interpretation decidedly fruity and sweet, but with an acidity that holds the sugar at bay, leaving the palate refreshed rather than sticky. Bush's latest version of that style, the Madroña Vineyards 2010 El Dorado Estate Riesling, is a lightly colored, medium-bodied and liltingly sweet take on the varietal, seizing riesling's distinctly fruity attributes of apple, lemon, peach and lime.

In carriage, it possesses maturity and grace, showing just why riesling is so often called one of the world's few "noble" wines.

It's a demanding wine to make. For one, the chilly nights at 3,000 feet up the Sierra can get downright gripping, pulling the family from their cozy beds to activate sprinklers to keep the young spring fruit from freezing. At harvest, Paul Bush and his field crew customarily make two sweeps through the riesling vineyard. They grab about two-thirds of the grapes during their first pick, when the fruit has less sugar and more acidity. A week or so later they gather the rest, when sugars are higher and acids lower. The first batch he ferments "dry" – without residual sugar. The second crop is fermented to retain a percent and a half or so of residual sugar. Two or three months later, he will blend the sweet wine into the dry until he gets both the richness and levity he seeks in the flagship riesling.

"Like zinfandel, riesling gives different fruit characteristics depending on when you pick it. At lower levels of sugar, you get more green-apple aspects, more Granny Smith and lemon-lime tartness," explained Paul Bush. "If I wait five to seven days more to pick, we then get more peach, fig, pear and honeysuckle."

The result, at least in 2010, was a riesling both luxurious and bracing, lush with fruit but at the same time finishing with snap. Whether any of it will be left for Sacramento-area restaurants to pour during next year's "Summer of Riesling" is doubtful, but by then the 2011 should be on the market, and in the meantime plenty of the bright and warm weather that makes the varietal so alluring should prevail through the fall.

Madroña Vineyards 2010 El Dorado Estate Riesling

By the numbers: 13.6 percent alcohol, 1 percent residual sugar, 624 cases, $14.

Context: Riesling is celebrated for its versatility at the table, and in that vein Paul Bush suggests it be paired with dishes that range from the light (a rice salad with curried chicken) to the robust (a Greek beef stew with a touch of orange zest). He also urges buyers to lay down bottles for five or so years, given riesling's reputation for sturdy evolution.

Availability: In Sacramento, the riesling is stocked by several Safeway stores, Corti Brothers and Costco. It also can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.madronavineyards.com.

More information: The Madroña tasting room, 2560 High Hill Road, Camino, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Also note that the winery's website includes a real-time "weather cam" to provide such current data as both air and "leaf" temperatures, wind speed and humidity.

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