Riesling Think Piece Nr.4: Crazy Riesling Stats (Part 2)

Welcome back to the Great Riesling Numbers Game! Every few days the next load of stats arrives and make my jaw drop again. On the eastern side of North America the largest area planted with Riesling seems to be in the Canadian province of Ontario:

Ontario now: 1,648 acres / 667 hectares

Thanks for the reliable figure go to colleague Tony Aspler in Toronto. Sadly, nobody in Ontario could tell me what the area planted with Riesling was a decade ago, though the generally feeling was that there had been very significant growth. When it comes to stats Canada is the Black Box of Riesling! The only place I could find a national figure for Rieslings in Canada was in  Christina Fischer and Ingo Swoboda book ‘Riesling’ published by Hallwag back in 2005. It gives the total vineyard area of the country as 22,240 acres / 9,000 hectares, and the area planted with Riesling as 1,087 acres / 440 hectares, or roughly 5% of the total. However, that oh so round 9,000 looks horribly suspicious to me, as if someone in a position of authority might have been embarrassed by a journalist’s question that he couldn’t answer properly, and in order to save face pulled a figure out of the air without saying that that’s what he did. If my gut feeling about that is right, then it’s a classic case of sub-prime stats!

Winemaker Anthony Carone of Carone Winery in Lanoraie/Quebec (see www.carone.ca) could find no reliable figure for the Riesling vineyard area in Quebec, adding that, “I would have to guess, about or below [25 acres /]10 hectares total.” The tone of his comments gave me the impression that Riesling does not play a significant role there, maybe because in this French-speaking province it’s perceived as a Germanic grape and therefore not really welcome. But maybe I’m wrong on that.

In contrast, Information privately gathered by Gina Haverstock, the winemaker of Gaspereau Vineyard close to Wolfville/NS (see www.gaspereauwine.com), indicates that something significant is beginning to happen in Nova Scotia. She puts the Riesling area in the state at 10 acres / 4 hectares divided between 9 different producers, commenting, “I also think that since there has been success in growing and making wine with Riesling over the last 10 years or so that there is indeed a growing enthusiasm for planting it in NS.” I can’t wait to taste the samples which she’s ending me: watch this space!

Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, was frustrated that he also couldn’t give me an exact current figure for the acreage of Riesling, since stats are only recorded in New York State about once every five years. He felt sure the area planted with Riesling in New York state is “at least 700 acres” area and that it continues to expand rapidly, “we know that Riesling is the main thing being planted” he said. A cautious approach to his figures gives the following picture.

New York State now: 700 acres / 283 hectares

New York a decade ago: 340 acres / 138 hectares

Growth: 106%

Even if Trezise has underestimated the current position of Riesling in his state that is very significant growth. He also gave me another valuable piece of information; I was the first journalist to ask those questions! Long Island Merlot has clearly achieved critical mass in terms of image  – sticking with the metaphor, let’s hope there’s no chain reaction leading to a devastating Merlot explosion! – and the media have therefore (at least sometimes) asked some serious questions. New York State Riesling’s biggest problem is that it very little of it grows a short drive from the Hamptons on Long Island. Instead, most of it grows a long way away from the Big Apple on the other side of the state around the Finger Lakes. They’re incredibly beautiful, and I promise you when you  go there the first time if the weather is OK your jaw will drop a long way at some point! I wish that the Finger Lakes producers were better at promoting themselves, because New York City still doesn’t want to take them seriously. This has lead to a viscous circle of media indifference and lack of awareness within both the wine scene and amongst consumers. A major story dissecting New York State’s Rieslings is in the early stages of construction in the workshop. There will be a lot of sawing and hammering before it is finished, but it will be worth the wait!

Michigan has had somewhat similar problems to New York State in gaining wider acceptance, but – to be honest – in recent years the leading Michigan Riesling winemakers seem to have been more successful in turning their difficult position around. This is an issue of increased quality and a clearer sense of the right style (rarely bone dry, but seldom forthrightly sweet either), which is a whole story unto itself. And I promise it will follow later here on Riesling Global. The figures I received from Sean O’Keefe of Château Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula close to Traverse City – my nominee  for the next President of the United States of Riesling – (see www.cgtwines.com) are the very first I’ve ever seen for this state, though I visited three times. The photo at the top shows the home Riesling vineyard of Chateau Grand Traverse during my first visit in October 2005.

Michigan now: 575 acres / 233 hectares

Michigan a decade ago: 204 acres / 83 hectares

Growth: 182%

That last figure is truly spectacular, the highest that I’ve so far encountered, but still consistent with steady and realistic growth rather than voodoo economics.

Over on the other side of Planet Wine in New Zealand the last years have seen changes so dramatic that it’s difficult to find words adequate to describe them. The financial crisis lead to the dramatic bursting of the Sauvignon Blanc bubble, which is hardly surprising when you consider that in 1999 a “mere” 4,961 acres / 2,008 hectares were planted with Sauvignon Blanc (SB), but a decade later there were 34,564 acres / 13,988 hectares of SB in New Zealand. That’s just shy of 600% “growth”, which I’d call hyper-inflation. The reality was even worse though, because of the high yields taken in most of the SB vineyards. This meant that though 47.7% of all vineyards in New Zealand were planted with SB perhaps as much as two thirds of all New Zealand wines were SBs! Of course, this kind of expansion is totally unsustainable. On top of this, as in the case of all bubbles, during the inflationary phase this development was idealized not only by the interested parties, but also many others who should have known better. This obscured many other developments, such as the steady rise of New Zealand Riesling.

New Zealand now: 2,453 acres / 993 hectares

New Zealand a decade ago: 1,067 acres / 432 hectares

Growth: 130%

Now let’s throw a glance back at Europe. The figures for Germany and France (basically Alsace) look pretty stable, but in the case ofAustria this is not the case.

Austria now: 4,603 acres / 1,863 hectares

Austria a decade ago: 4,060 acres / 1,643 hectares

Growth: 13%

But this figure is somewhat misleading, suggests a German-type stability, which is not the case. If we turn the clock back just one more decade and look at the figure for 1990 we find there were then just 2,750 acres / 1,113 hectares of Riesling in Austrian. This means there was almost 48% growth in the Riesling vineyard area there during the last decade of the 20th century. I’d call that major expansion.

Who thinks of Italy for Riesling? The bilingual Italian province of Südtirol / Alto Adige, is a mountainous area where Riesling grows on steep slopes and terraces at altitudes up to around 2,400 feet / 800 meters above sea level. Not only is this Riesling landscape spectacular, but the stats are too. Thank you Othmar Kiem for this figure.

Südtirol/Alto Adige now: 128 acres / 52 hectares

Maybe that isn’t so much in absolute terms, but just look at the growth. I couldn’t find a figure for the area planted with Riesling in Südtirol/Alto Adige a decade ago, but I did find one for 2005, which was 75 acres / 30 hectares. That means growth of 73% in just six years, most of it in the Vinschgau and Eisacktal Appellations, which are rugged Alpine Valleys. For several years the town of Naturns in the Vinschgau has staged a Riesling festival every year in October to publicize this development, and not without good reason. It Italy there are also significant Riesling plantings in Trentino, Friuli, Lombardei. and a smaller area in Piemont. However, I have so far failed to find stats for them. But I promise to track them down however hard it is!

This is still very much a provisional report, a work-in-progress and a state of shock I continue to find myself in, because – to be honest – I never really believed that it could or would happen. Looking back this strikes me now as a sign of stupidity and weakness, but just now I feel breathless, because it is all way above any expectations I ever had. The story which the Riesling stats has to tell really is crazy in the best sense of the word!

PS Thank you again Karl Storchmann. Without you I’d have never have got this far!

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3 Responses to Riesling Think Piece Nr.4: Crazy Riesling Stats (Part 2)

  1. Arthur Harder says:

    Hi Stuart,

    it has been a while (1992) since we met in Rüdesheim. I really enjoyed your videos Weinwunder Deutschland Pinot & Sekt. Very well done.

    If you need any numbers on Ontario viticulture I may be of help you there.

    all the best,


  2. Christian Almstedt says:

    Do you have any updated statistics over the, say 6 largest countries now?

    • Stuart says:

      Christian, thanks for that question, which is a good one. I will have to look into this. Please be patient! Best, Stuart

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