Ken Robertson

Is Northwest Riesling losing its luster?

Riesling, arguably the Northwest’s most versatile white wine grape, appears to be heading for hard times after a long run as one of Washington’s most-planted white wine grapes.

The Riesling rush started soon after 1972, when a Chateau Ste. Michelle wine labeled as Johannisberg Riesling won a blind tasting of 19 top-flight Rieslings from around the world. Thus, before any other grape, Riesling put Washington and the Northwest on the world wine map.

Ever since, our region’s winemakers have made superb Riesling in almost every style imaginable — bone dry, off dry, sweet, late harvest, ice wine and even sparkling. You can find Northwest Riesling with as little as 1 gram per liter of residual sugar and as much as 300 grams, according to the statistics gathered for Wine Press Northwest’s judging of 62 Rieslings earlier this spring. And you can buy gold-medal Riesling from Idaho, Oregon and Washington for as little as $10 a bottle or much as $60 for a 375-millileter bottle of ice wine.

Winemakers in the three states have more than 6,000 acres to draw from, and in Washington roughly 10 percent of the state’s wine plantings are Riesling. But Chardonnay has shouldered its way into the No. 1 spot in Washington, with about 7,400 acres and roughly 9,000 acres across the region, but the two are nip and tuck in tons of grapes produced and crushed.

That would seem to indicate Riesling really is doing quite well. And in quality, it certainly is. Of the 62 Rieslings reviewed, 26 received our top rating of “Outstanding!” That’s almost 42 percent as rated by our panel of five judges, a rate unequaled in my memory of the 21 years of Wine Press Northwest.

Northwest Riesling really is that good. The problem is profitability and what appears to be flat-lining consumer demand. In 2017, red wine grapes sold in Washington averaged a record high $1,420 per ton, a gain of 7.7 percent. Whites, on the other hand, slipped to $874 a ton, down by 1 percent.

That 60 percent premium for red wine grapes hasn’t escaped notice from the bean counters, who naturally push for profitability.

As a result, some grower contracts are not being renewed. When that happens, the next step usually is for growers to pull out established grapes and chase the elusive “next big thing.” It’s happened before. Gewürztraminer, Semillon and Chenin Blanc all once had much bigger roles in Washington, but have shrunk to 222 acres for Gewürztraminer, 95 for Semillon and 67 for Chenin as of 2017. In 1993, Chenin was at 600 acres, Gewürztraminer at 300 and Semillon at 700 when the state had only 11,100 acres of wine grapes.

That concerns growers who have spent years developing the best sites for each grape variety, refined their plantings by chasing the best clones for their sites and often developed something special as a result.

Kent Waliser of Sagemoor Vineyards, which includes Bacchus, Dionysus Weinbau and Gamache Vineyards, said they had pulled out all but two acres of Riesling at Weinbau. He recalls that in 2005, three years after joining Sagemoor, he took out some unexceptional Chardonnay and planted three Riesling clones in its place that Chateau Ste. Michelle wanted to try: Neustadt 90 and Geisenheim 198 and 239. The latter two are noted for producing starfruit-laden aromas and flavors that make a distinctive Riesling. One of the top-rated Rieslings in our judging came from those distinctive grapes.

Waliser hopes to keep those vines and thinks what might change the future he foresees would be to use such vineyards to produce wines that stand apart from the what Washington typically produces and then charge a premium price — perhaps $20 to $25 a bottle.

That’s more than double what Chateau Ste. Michelle’s high-volume and high-quality Rieslings now sell for. Some winemakers are trying that. Novelty Hill Janiuk Winery, for example, has a $22 Bacchus Vineyard Riesling that’s highly regarded.

“I think Washington needs to reinvent Riesling from the ground up,” Waliser said, forecasting, “And it will start with a small producer.”

And at somewhere in the $20 to $25 price range, he believes the profitability could sustain outstanding grapes that otherwise might be yanked out.

Wine words: Coates Law of Maturity

A rather famous British wine writer and Master of Wine, Clive Coates, developed this “law” back in the late 1960s and 1970s, arguing that wine stays at its best for roughly the same amount of time that it takes to reach its peak. For example, if a particular red wine is at its best five years after it was made — say a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its peak drinkability in 2020 — it should remain at that level for about the same amount of time.

When I first read this, I was skeptical, but after more reading, I was intrigued by the concept. Say, for example, its tannin structure has softened, its acidity, fruit flavors and aromas remain bright and appealing, and some other characteristics you enjoy also have become even more appealing over five years, it seems reasonable those characteristics will extend for another five years before dropping off appreciably. Another wine lover may think the wine peaked at age three, so by his perceptions, the traits he loves may fade in three years.

Is it reasonable and credible? Wine expert Tom Stevenson, another Brit who’s written about two dozen books about wine over roughly 40 years, including the highly respected The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, has written he’s never encountered a wine that has proved Coates’ concept incorrect. It’s hard to argue with credentials such as his. Of course, you might want to buy perhaps a case of your favorite wine and sample it regularly over a fair number of years to test it. Sounds like an admirable and entertaining pursuit.

KEN ROBERTSON , the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

This story was originally published May 24, 2019 1:00 AM.

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