I think a lot about Riesling. At any given time, I'll admit to it being my favorite wine. Exploring it in all its forms is at times an obsession. Other grapes come and go, competing for my attention (most notably Malbec and Petite Sirah), but nothing gets me salivating like Riesling.
I suspect it goes back to my earliest visits to tasting rooms in the Yakima Valley in the mid-’90s. Undoubtedly, off-dry or late-harvest examples of Riesling, wines that appealed to my sweet tooth and didn't challenge me with tannins or anything beyond clean fruit flavors, were likely pretty appealing in those early days. Simple wines for simpler times, I suppose. I feel fortunate they led to a deeper appreciation and greater experiences.
Eventually, I began to participate in professional competitions in California and elsewhere in the West. I got to know guys like Jim Trezise from New York and Dan Berger from Northern California. These guys talked a lot about Riesling. Odd, I thought, why the big fuss over a sweet, simple wine?
This is where my wine education began. Not only was every Riesling different, spanning from bone-dry to succulently sweet dessert wines, but I also began to understand how nuanced and interesting they could be. Less importantly, Rieslings tended to be less expensive, important for a guy working on a newspaperman’s salary.
Pretty soon, I began reading books, articles and attending anything that would further my knowledge of this noble grape. I would wander around crush pads during harvest, hoping for a chance to talk Riesling with winemakers, and maybe snag a glass of fresh-pressed juice for my troubles. I began to realize the depth of information available, even as my appreciation rose. I began to experiment by tasting wines from other regions of the world, quickly learning I could spend my career learning what German labels actually mean.
I soon discovered that great examples come from Austria, France and Australia, examples of which were hard to find. Lately, I’ve discovered great examples from Eastern Europe and even the Middle East. Domestically, great Riesling is more than a Pacific Northwest thing. Great examples are coming from New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and several other states (even California).
I'm probably biased, but I think the most exciting and broadest range of styles come from our own backyard. Not just Washington, but also Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho, as it turns out, are capable of producing world-class Riesling. Each region has its own expressions from alluring, bone-dry examples to super-sweet, amazing icewines. I have plenty to explore right here in my corner of the continent.
Rieslings, as it turns out, are very terroir-based wines, with their style and quality dependent on region, soil and elevation. Part of the reason Rieslings are so interesting here in the Northwest is a phenomenon known as the diurnal shift, that is, the difference between day and night temperatures. These temperature shifts help retain acidity and affect the flavors of the finished wine.
This is key, I believe, to the complexity and quality of Northwest Riesling. Each region's Rieslings are so different and distinctive. Each is beautiful and worth our attention and adoration.
One of the really cool aspects of Rieslings is their ability to age. That was never a consideration for me until a few years ago. If I found an old Riesling in my cellar, that was a mistake because the wine was thought of as something you aged on the way home from the store, then you chilled it and killed it. Turns out Rieslings get really interesting with time in the cellar. I've been fortunate to taste examples that are 30 to 50 years old, and they are utterly fascinating. To get there, you have to be really patient and find wines with the right chemistry to age. The reward happens when you pull the cork on a beautiful old Riesling whose bouquet fills the room with notes of lavender, baked apple, cloves and Crème Brûlée. Those are magical moments.
The irony is not lost on me that the love I have for Riesling began because I had no palate for something more than wines that were considered sweet and simple. As it turns out, I fell for a wine variety that is able to show itself to have range, from bone-dry to sublimely complex. With food pairings that run the full gamut. It is hard to overstate the greatness of Riesling. With the breadth of cuisine styles in the Northwest, Riesling is rarely a wrong choice.
If you have ignored Riesling because you viewed it as simply a sweet, unsophiscated white, you deserve to give yourself a chance at redemption. There is a lot of it out there, made in a range of styles. And if you live in the Pacific Northwest, you're in Riesling Country.
ANDY PERDUE is a wine author, journalist and international wine judge. He writes the Sunday wine column in The Seattle Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .