Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Impressions of Washington: Riesling

People in and around wine often ask each other 'what was the wine that did it for you?' The question implies that most wine enthusiasts can remember one specific wine that took their breath away and instantly converted them from an interested wine drinker to a wine devotee. They remember the day they went from an ordinary consumer to a person that is almost committed to the stuff in a way others consider to be bizarre, obsessive, or even slightly obscene. Many people can name that wine without any thought. They remember the awakening that occurred by being exposed to such complexity, such structure, such depth of flavor in one single glass. For them it was an experience that literally had a lasting impact on how they define pleasure.

I have not had this epiphany wine. I'm not sure this wine exists in my future either. I don't know if I am less emotional than the folks who had a conversion moment or if my pursuit of wine was such a calculated path that I eliminated the possibility of a life-changing encounter. But I may have just experienced my answer to this question nonetheless. My recent trip to Washington, and corresponding grand scale exposure to the wines coming out of Washington State, have served to drastically deepen my appreciation for this substance. To be brought into contact with the people, the land, the diversity, and the excellence of Washington wine in such a concentrated experience has absolutely taught me that I have not even scratched the surface of what wine exploration can offer as a hobby and a passion. What follows is the first of many impressions I have of what Washington is doing in wine right now. Each Impressions of Washington post is written with much respect for the people who are bringing great things from the land and grapes.

Washington Riesling:

Riesling is on the rise in the US and Washington, and well it should be. Washington state has a wonderful diversity of terroir to chose from when planting vineyards, offering riesling multiple locations to develop wonderful minerality and ripe fruit that maintains sharp acidity. People are buying riesling because they are correctly discovering that it is not always the flabby sweet stuff that domestic riesling has tended towards in the past, but instead a diverse offering that pairs amazingly well with many foods and is generally sold for under $20 a bottle.

The rieslings I tasted in Washington showed a wide range of styles and quality. The vast majority were beautifully aromatic, full of peach, stone fruits, citrus, and minerality and had brilliant acidity that kept them from being cloying despite their residual sugar levels. Some however still suffered from riesling flaws including aromas reminiscent of rubber, or a lack of acidity that made the wine seem syrupy or supremely uninteresting. Of the dozen or so rieslings that I tried these stood out as absolutely exemplary:

Nefarious Cellars 2009 Riesling Stone's Throw Vineyards - This is a slightly off-dry example made with all estate fruit grown at Nefarious' Pateros vineyards. Nefarious Cellars is a young winery located in the newest Washington AVA Lake Chelan, and the beautifully minerality matched with slightly sweet citrus of this wine shows why this area and its growing number of wineries deserve their unique identity. This bottle is available from the winery for $17.99.

2008 Eroica Riesling - Produced for the last 10 years as a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and the infamous Dr. Loosen of German riesling producing fame, this wine is often upheld as a pinnacle of domestic riesling. Showing amazing crispness and a flavor profile and acidity that literally makes your mouth water, the Eroica riesling screams for a spicy Asian dish that it can literally cut through and enhance. Available widely for under $20, I believe this is the domestic riesling that can be used to convince any doubter what this grape is capable of.

Alexandria Nicole 2008 Late Harvest Riesling - Produced with fruit from the renowned Horse Heaven Hills along the Columbia River this riesling offered the best nose of any of the Washington rieslings tasted. If you love the petrol and apple nose of a great German riesling then this is the wine for you. As labeled, this wine has high residual sugar but has such beautiful balancing acidity and mineral notes in the flavor profile that it comes across as crisp, refreshing, and absolutely delicious. Priced at $16 from the winery this is the hands down must buy of Washington riesling (especially if you think that sweet can not be complex and refined).

Riesling has and will continue to be one of Washington wine's greatest successes. Washington wine is often highlighted for its acidity and balance and while there are a few disappointing exceptions their rieslings generally display this brilliantly. The wines noted above will always exist as a piece of my answer to the question 'what wine did it for you?' So here I ask, what was your moment?


  1. My moment was sitting in close proximity to you as you tasted this late harvest Riesling from from Alexandria Nicole that you've just rated so highly! Nice column, Scott. Your writing is very polished and I enjoyed reading your post as well as meeting you on the WBC or Bust trip and the subsequent weekend in Walla Walla. Now, tell me a little about vineyard2door? Just curious...

  2. Phil, if you click on the link it will take you to the page where you can purchase the Alexandria Nicole Late Harvest Riesling. So I'm not positive but I believe it is the inventory, retail, and shipping third party that they use for online ordering.

  3. Did you get the opportunity to taste the Poet's Leap Riesling during the speed tasting. It is shining example of Washington riesling. I also recommend Efeste Riesling from Evergreen vineyards and the Kennedy Shah Riesling is a great bargain wine, usually available for under $10

  4. Bean, I can't believe I missed the Poet's Leap Riesling. There were so many good wines during the speed tasting (as well as a few duds) that I did not even realize it was being poured.

    I may just have to order a bottle, because as I look around online it looks like something I would love. Thanks for all the recommendations.

  5. Scott, Another great post (I'm reading these in reverse order). Washington Rieslings for me have always been a favorite, CSM Riesling is probably many people's first Washington wine, whether they realized it was from WA or not.

    This grape is also one that I'm strating to be able to distinguish the AVA's. Northern Columbia Valley, Ancient Lakes, Lake Chelan typically carry more citrus notes, Yakima Valley is strong stone fruit (apricot, peach), Horse Heaven more to the apple spectrum. Eroica typically blends Yak fruit with Columbia Valley fruit I think.

    One you may not have tried but is Riesling specialist and makes umpteen different styles sourced from all over the state is Pacific Rim. They have wide distribution, too. Their website is rieslingrules.com