Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Washington state leads pack of tasted rieslings

Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery makes 1.1 million cases of riesling annually, which leads the nation.
Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery makes 1.1 million cases of riesling annually, which leads the nation.

With spring just around the corner, let’s start pulling corks – or twisting screwcaps – on bottles of riesling.

Actually, several wine enthusiasts especially fond of riesling couldn’t wait for spring. Just after the start of the year they convened in the restaurant Diavola at Geyserville in northern Sonoma County for a blind tasting of just what may be their favorite varietal wine.

This was the format: Each of the seven tasters was to bring three rieslings from a particular North American area where vintners are trying to show that riesling can flaunt its noble heritage far from its historic homeland, Germany.

Andy Perdue, wine columnist for the Seattle Times, brought three from Washington state. Ellen Landis of Half Moon Bay, wine blogger and frequent judge on the wine-competition circuit, brought three from Michigan. Santa Rosa wine writer Dan Berger brought three from New York’s Finger Lakes, and so forth. I brought three from California. The other regions represented were British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Oregon and Idaho.

Our goal was to gauge how the various areas were doing by riesling, and to see if we could differentiate significant differences in style from region to region.

As to the latter, that didn’t happen, at least not to any definitive degree to judge by my tasting notes. If I were to help arrange a future tasting, I’d group the wines by region, which would have made the pinpointing of regional characteristics easier. As it was, in an effort to safeguard the anonymity of the wines, our facilitator poured them randomly.

At any rate, by our calculations by the end of the tasting we concluded that just about every represented area is doing quite well by riesling, though the results, with one exception, were uneven.

The exception: All three rieslings from Washington were awarded a gold medal.

What’s more, one of the Washington rieslings was the only consensus gold among the seven judges. That wine was the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($10), which earned my gold vote for its sunny fruit, sleek chassis, zesty acidity and overall dry and elegant styling. Other tasters praised it for its “chalkboard dust,” “tangerine peel,” “green apple,” “Asian pear,” “quince,” “slate” and “lime.” That’s a whole lot of heavy footprints left by a wine with such a light price tag.

Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more riesling than any other winery in the nation – 1.1 million cases. Each vintage it typically releases 10 or so versions. The 2013 “Dry Riesling,” while readily available in and about Sacramento, isn’t the winery’s flagship riesling. Simply labeled “Riesling,” it is similarly priced to the “Dry Riesling” but sweeter.

The biggest surprise of the tasting was another Washington wine, Charles Smith Wines’ Kung Fu Girl 2013 Washington State Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley Riesling ($12), a crowd-pleaser for its agreeable sweetness and well-integrated acidity, making it fitting as both cocktail wine and as an accompaniment to spicy dishes.

The third Washington standout was the Jones of Washington 2013 Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley Riesling ($12), an unusually complex take on the varietal, with surprising suggestions of watermelon as well as the more traditional peach. While decidedly sweet, the wine’s sugar was nicely offset with zingy acidity.

While Washington clearly is the leader for consistency and value in riesling, at least as measured by this small sampling, other regions show potential with the varietal. New York’s Finger Lakes district long has staked its standing to riesling, and the examples in the tasting reaffirmed the region’s reputation for traditionally styled rieslings that couple authority with finesse. The three provided upfront fruit in their aroma, were sleek and dry on the palate, carried classic notes of petrol and spice, and tapered off gracefully with both zesty acidity and lingering fresh fruit.

The Oregon entries showed the most variability in styling, with one dry, austere and gripping, another fat, ripe and sweet. That could speak to the individuality that seems to run more strongly through the state’s winemaking community than it does in other areas.

Okanagan Valley’s winemakers take a respectfully classic approach to riesling, by and large, while the vivid Michigan rieslings, two of which sang with minerality, perhaps expressed the sites where the grapes were grown more faithfully than any other group.

The Idaho entries tended to be fat in build but tight in statement, their fruit plenty ripe but their acidity shy.

The California delegation was the biggest letdown, both for the group – not a single gold medal was awarded – and for me. I’d chosen three representatives that over the years have pleased me consistently with their fidelity to grape and place.

On this night, however, they disappointed, and I think I know why – age. Two were too young, one was too old. The wines were the peachy and silken but constricted Chateau Montelena 2013 Potter Valley Riesling ($25), the perfumey and complicated but somewhat tired Zocker 2009 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Riesling ($19.50) and the tightly wound Smith-Madrone 2013 Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Riesling ($27), which within a few months, I’m convinced, will come around to its usual effusiveness; in early January, however, it was mumbling with the hesitancy of youth. In five years or so, I’m confident the Chateau Montelena and the Smith-Madrone will be showing gloriously.

An example of just how dramatically riesling can unfold with time in the cellar was demonstrated over dinner at the end of the tasting. One of the tasters, Ron Washam, who writes the blog HoseMaster of Wine, opened and poured a magnum of the von Hovel 1985 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Oberemmeler Hutte Riesling Spatlese. That’s a 30-year-old riesling, yet it still was standing tall and striding about as if it owned the place. It had deep golden color, satiny texture, and a fragrance and flavor that ran vibrantly from apricots to nuts. And get this: The alcohol content was just 7.1 percent.

Maybe that should be the group’s next tasting: Hang on to rieslings from this January’s tasting to see how well they will be showing in 30 years.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.