When most folks hear “Riesling” and “Washington” in the same sentence, they might automatically insert “Chateau Ste. Michelle.” And there would be nothing wrong with that, seeing that Washington’s oldest and largest winery makes more Riesling than any winery on the planet.
Since introducing the 1999 inaugural vintage of Eroica, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has become the standard bearer for the American Riesling revolution. The Woodinville giant helped put Washington on the national wine stage when its 1972 Riesling was ranked No. 1 in a blind tasting conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 1974.
The fact is that most of the Riesling in Washington was planted to supply Ste. Michelle’s 1 million-plus cases of annual Riesling production, and thanks to Ste. Michelle, we know that cooler areas of the Columbia Valley — particularly the Yakima Valley and the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley — are superb for growing great Riesling.
Ste. Michelle also should be considered responsible for setting the quality bar on Riesling, and that we believe has encouraged other Washington producers to make not-so-insignificant amounts of Riesling. More than 75 Washington wineries produce Riesling, often in artisan-level amounts, so winemakers still view Riesling as a hip grape to work with.
Here are several styles of Washington Riesling we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery.
Côte Bonneville 2016 DuBrul Vineyard Estate Riesling, Yakima Valley, $22: The Shiels family continues to burnish its reputation for producing delicious Riesling in a Spätlese style via DuBrul Vineyard, established in 1992 overlooking the Yakima Valley from the Rattlesnake Hills. Flinty minerality, nectarine and pear aromas lead into lip-smacking flavors of peach nectar and clementine acidity to adroitly balance the residual sugar of 3.5 percent. Suggested pairings an Asian-inspired chicken wrap or a lemon bar. Second-generation vintner Kerry Shiels turned this into a gold medal at the 2017 Cascadia International Wine Competition. (10 percent alcohol)
Charles Smith Wines 2015 Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Washington, $12: While the label broadly reads “Washington State,” the wine’s pedigree stems from Jerry Milbrandt’s Evergreen Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley — the foundation of many of the Columbia Valley’s top Rieslings. Jasmine, citrus and lychee aromas include a fanciful hint of candy corn and a faint whiff of petrol. Inside, it’s yummy with a blend of Key Lime pie, lemon and honey, backed by a finish of Granny Smith apple peel that easily balances the residual sugar of 1.4 percent. It capped 2016 with the ranking of No. 45 in the world on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, yet it shows no sign of slowing down. Enjoy with seafood or Asian-inspired fare. (12 percent alcohol)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling, Columbia Valley, $16: Few producers use the phrase “old vines” on their Riesling labels, but Bob Bertheau could for Cold Creek Vineyard, one of the most historic sites in Washington state. That Riesling thrives in the same vineyard as award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon helps showcase the versatility of the Columbia Valley. Lush orchard fruit aromas and flavors such as Honeycrisp apple and Cling peach include touches of lavender and diesel. Lemony acidity and minerality provide delicious balance to the 1.5 percent residual sugar, and it settles right between “medium dry” and “medium sweet” on the International Riesling Foundation Taste Profile scale. Enjoy with crab, a plate of cheese and fruit, poultry and Asian fare. (12.5 percent alcohol)
Nine Hats Wines 2016 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $14: The sister label of Walla Walla’s Long Shadows Vintners program is spearheaded by the brilliant Gilles Nicault, who doubled production of this Riesling over the 2015 vintage. But there’s no drop-off. He continues to present this with a theme of stone fruit flavors and citrusy acidity, ranging from orange blossoms to white peach and sweet lime, backed by ginger spice, clementine and nectarine. This merited a gold medal at the 2017 Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition. (13.4 percent alcohol)
Pacific Rim Winemakers 2015 Riesling “J”, Columbia Valley, $12: One of the Northwest’s premier producers of Riesling recently began labeling its medium-dry Riesling as “J” — as in “just right” with regards to the sugar/acid balance. Beautiful tropical aromas include peaches, rosewater and mint. Those are echoed with the juicy flavors, which pick up lemongrass, clove and sweet apple. Indeed, this sits toward the middle of the International Riesling Foundation’s Taste Profile scale. Serve it with Curried Butternut Squash Soup. (11.5 percent alcohol)
Milbrandt Vineyards 2015 Pheasant Vineyard The Estates Late Harvest Riesling, Wahluke Slope, $25: Pheasant Vineyard is a relatively warmer site for Riesling, and that allows young winemaker Emily Haines to ripen this lot early and long for a mid-December harvest. Aromas of poached pears with honey, honeysuckle and powdered sugar lead to a nectar that is full-bodied, backed by caramelized pears, honey and lemon thyme, a blend of herbs and acidity that adroitly deals with the residual sugar of 13 percent. (13.2 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com