Washington first made a name for itself back in the early 1970s by producing brilliant Riesling wine that made the rest of the world turn its eyes to our then fledgling wine industry.
Chateau Ste. Michelle produced those wines, and in the ensuing 40-plus years has only honed that reputation, helping build the brand into the world’s largest single producer of Riesling wines totaling more than 1.2 million cases, the single largest varietal among its total production of more than 2.7 million cases.
Along the way, it’s produced and inspired an array of styles in the Northwest’s winemakers, ranging from dry to slightly sweet to late harvest to ice wine, making the region into a world-famous Riesling producer.
The competition among grape growers and winemakers to produce outstanding Riesling has created some amazing wines. I offer as evidence Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 17th annual Platinum Judging, which included more than 500 of the region’s gold medal winners from 2016.
Of those entries, 31 were made from Riesling in one of its many styles, and 14 of them took Platinum or Double Platinum awards, which means all judges on a panel agreed those wines were worthy of a platinum. In a single nine-wine flight, four won a Platinum award, two more Double Platinum.
How does that compare with other varieties of wine judged this year? Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling are Washington’s four most-planted grapes. Of 59 Cabernet entries, 18 won Platinum. Of 39 Merlots, nine won Platinum. And of 21 Chardonnays, five won Platinum.
The panel of three judges who evaluated those Rieslings included two people who judge internationally and who are not from the Northwest, so it wasn’t a question of inexperience or favoring the home team.
I served as moderator for the panel, and all three judges were impressed by the overall quality of the Rieslings. Among their comments: “Dramatic fruit with tropical and orange blossom aromas,” “Perfect acid-sugar balance,” “Perfect harmony of sugar and acid,” and “Very crisp acidity to finish, a bit of stony minerality.”
The Riesling entries came from British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon and Washington and from nine different AVAs in the U.S. and from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. They were grown in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, Chehalem Mountains, Elkton and Umpqua regions; in Washington’s Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan and Ancient Lakes areas; and from Idaho’s Snake River Valley.
No matter what you prefer — bone dry, barely off dry, sweet or dessert style — there’s one that will suit your tastes and will pair with almost any table fare — from soup to nuts, from New Year’s Day through the Christmas season.
Wine words: Brix and residual sweetness
Since we’ve been talking about the many faces of Riesling, a bit of discussion about sugar seems especially appropriate. As many wine drinkers already well know, both terms are measures of sugar content, but they define it at very different times.
Brix defines sugar level in ripening grapes. Residual sweetness is the amount that remains in the finished wine. Yeast turn the sugar into alcohol at a rate of roughly two to one. Thus, a brix of 24 will produce an alcohol level of about 12 percent if all the sugar is fermented out of the resulting wine.
Growers and winemakers closely monitor sugar development throughout late summer and into the fall, choosing to pick depending on what type of wine they want to make. For sparkling wine, they may want to pick in early to mid-August, depending on how warm the growing season has been. That’s because they may want high acidity and a lower alcohol level of perhaps 9 to 11 percent, which requires 18 to 22 percent sugar. A lighter-styled sweet sparkling wine from Italy may end up containing as little as 5.5 percent alcohol.
For a bold red wine, which usually is produced by later-ripening red grapes, a brix level of 24 to 26 percent is typically desired. In the Northwest, that may mean Cabernet Sauvignon won’t be picked until early November. In 2016, a year that started warm and turned temperate in the fall, Eastern Washington grape growers were wrapping up their harvest of Cabernet in the second week of November, for example.
Now, residual sugar. If the winemaker wants to stop fermentation and keep some of the sugar content in a late harvest-styled wine, it’s likely those grapes will hang well into the fall and may not be picked until well into the fall, with a brix level well into the high 20s or, in the case of ice wine, maybe into the 30s because the grapes continue to lose water as they hang and even more as they freeze.
There are several ways to stop fermentation. Alcohol will poison wine yeast at somewhere above 15 percent, though specialized yeasts may endure to just over 20 percent. In a Port-styled wine, distilled spirits are injected into fermenting wine, quickly raising the alcohol to about 17 percent, killing fermentation and preserving the sweetness desired. For a slightly sweet wine, a late harvest wine or an ice wine, refrigeration is generally used to halt fermentation. And sometimes, fermentation simply stops, much to a winemaker’s dismay.
The consumer usually can determine the residual sweetness by a bit of label reading. Some wines may simply be labeled sweet, others may list sugar by percent and some may list grams per liter (g/L). That’s an easy conversion: Twenty grams of sugar per liter, for example, is 2 percent residual sugar.