The Wild Riesling West!
The statistics make it indisputable, even if the media seem blind to the fact that Riesling is rising on the West Coast of America. This trend has a lot to do with the critical and commercial success of one wine: ‘Eroica’ from the Dr. Loosen (of Bernkastel/Mosel) and Chateau Ste. Michelle joint venture in Washington State. First produced in the 1999 vintage ‘Eroica’ rapidly began changing the perception of American Riesling in the US. The reason for this is easy to taste. The 2010 ‘Eroica’ is bursting with white peach and fresh herbal aromas, tastes ripe and succulent, but also racy and dry enough to work with food ranging from poached salmon to hot dogs or Thai red curries. You can definitely taste the input of a top Mosel Riesling winemaker who’s looking for purity and elegance, but the wine has an American boldness, and that white peach aroma is classic for high quality Washington State Rieslings. This and the serious quantity of the wine being sold – they won’t say how much it is, but it’s several hundred thousand bottles per year – has made it the benchmark against which all ambitious American Rieslings are now judged.
It wasn’t on the table when I sat down in Restaurant Hearth on Manhattan’s East 12th Street at First Avenue on Wednesday, July 25th to taste a slew of dry wines from the Western half of the United States of Riesling, but it didn’t need to be; ‘Eroica’ is etched into my memory. With me was the tasting’s organizer, Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula/Michigan (whose own wines made it onto the tasting table the next day when we tasted dry Rieslings of the Eastern half of the US) and Rosemary Gray, one of the best professional tasters in the city.
We all agreed that it was a crazy roller-coaster ride, with wines in a mind-boggling diversity of styles, so that’s how I’m presenting it instead of trying to impose some kind of artificial 100-points-scale order on the creative chaos of the Wild Riesling West.
First up, I had no idea that someone called Guy Drew was making Riesling in West Cortez/Colorado. I had to use Google Earth to find out where the hell that is! His 2009 ‘Russel Vineyard’ Riesling wasn’t the star of the tasting, but it had a good harmony of fresh acidity and ripe lemon aroma proving beyond doubt that Colorado has a Riesling future. The younger vintages from Guy Drew were a bit closed-up, which Rosemary noted meant they little aroma; a problem that would recur quite a few times during the tasting.
California Riesling is now as impossible to pin down in a one line description as California Chardonnay or Zinfandel, with some of the styles completely off my mental radar screen, most obviously that of Tatomer in Santa Barbara. Their rich 2008 ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling weighted in at a hefty 13.9% alcohol and had a really creamy texture that spoke to Sean and I of long lees contact; a good way of preventing that kind of alcohol from making the wine taste warm, or worse still, hot. However, it was about as far away from a sleek, crisp Riesling as you can get, though the peachy aroma of our favorite grape was abvious. It reminded Sean somewhat of a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, but without the oak aromas and Rosemary found it pretty strange. Tatomer’s 2010 ‘Sisquoc’ Riesling was somewhat fresher and less monumental, but still had that creaminess. Personally, I’m pleased for every extension of the already immense Riesling flavor spectrum and Graham Tatomer has certainly done that.
The contrast to the lean, bone-dry style of Clairborne-Churchill couldn’t have been greater. I guess I have more daily contact with this kind of Riesling than Sean and Rosemary, but I could certainly see why they found the 2010s from this producer too austere (the 2011 dry Riesling was significantly riper). Maybe that’s also the reason I was so excited by the 2010 Riesling from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley, which struck me as being intensely, maybe too intensely, minerally. For Rosemary this wine was too closed-up and remained so when retasted the next day.
I was just wondering what something between these extremes would taste like when the delicious 2011 ‘Skyline Riesling’ from Thomas Fogarty grabbed me by the throat. A cocktail of fruit aromas and a minty freshness lead to a rich and juicy palate with a beautifully clean dry finish made this one irresistible. Forget all those macho high-alcohol, over-oaked Chardonnays which are the nuclear-armed aircraft carriers of the Californian wine navy!
As we moved on to the wines from Oregon Sean made a sweeping statement that I’m still chewing on, “now we’re going to the Promised Land of American Riesling.” Seen from a die-hard Riesling-Acid-Hound’s perspective the four wines we tasted from Harry Peterson-Nedry’s Chehalem winery were masterpieces of purity. However, freshly-opened and poured straight into the glass they were all more or less closed-up, and we agreed that the sulfur on the 2010 Dry Riesling ‘Reserve’ was too obvious in the nose. With this intensity of acidity and screw caps that level of sulfur simply isn’t necessary to keep the wine fresh, (though it might be appropriate for some of those aircraft carrier Chardonnays!) The 2011 ‘Corral Creek’ Riesling from Chehalem came closest to bringing off a Mosel-like balancing act on a razor’s edge of acidity, because the white fruit aromas were more open than on the other wines we tasted.
Some of the Oregon wines seemed to be aping Australian Rieslings, none more so than those from Australian Brian Croser’s Tunkalilla winery. The problem with going down this path is that the climate in Oregon is totally unlike that of anywhere in South Australia and therefore the Australian methods lead to a very different result from back in OZ. As Rosemary said after tasting several wines of this type, “I feel like everything is trying too hard and losing charm,” by doing so.
Much more appealing was the simultaneously succulent and racy 2011 ‘Nicolas Estate’ Dry Riesling from Anam Cara Cellars with its floral notes. They were also evident in the attractive and vibrant 2011 Estate Riesling from Foris Winery in the Rogue River Valley with its generous apple aromas. However, these were good wine rather than messages from the Promised Land of American Riesling.
I knew that Rosemary was from Idaho and that Idaho has been growing Riesling for decades so we would have been delighted to report that the state is making mind-blowing dry Rieslings. Instead, the 2011 ‘Estate Grown’ Riesling from Sawtooth was well made, but too sweet too fit in with the rest of the wines in the tasting.
So it was, by chance, that the last wines of the day provided both the high point of the four hours tasting and proved that Washington State can produce world-class dry Rieslings. Even the regular 2011 Dry Riesling from Pacific Rim winery was full of citrus and peach flavors, at once juicy and elegant; for Sean it was a “stunner” in this price category. But it was over-shadowed by Pacific Rim’s much more powerful 2010 ‘Solstice Vineyard’ Riesling from Yakima Valley with its opulent peachy bouquet and complex textural qualities. As Rosemary observed, “it’s not the Australian style, and it’s not the European style,” which in my book means that winemaker Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim has developed his own style.
That was decisively confirmed by the 2010 ‘Wallula Vineyard’ Riesling with it’s incredibly complex herbal and fruit aromas – “Rosemary and passion fruit,” noted Sean – followed by a literally breathtaking harmony, the bright acidity electrifying the spicy finish and giving it as much excitement as you can hope for here on Planet Wine. It was wild enough for me!
Nicolas Quille, who was born in Lyon/France, studied winemaking in Dijon/Burgundy, then moved to the West Coast in 1997 and Randal Grahm’s Bonny Doon winery in 2004 is a perfect example of what the cultural melting pot of America makes possible when things with Germanic roots – in this case Riesling – are not deemed off-limits for reasons which lost any validity decades ago. A full-length version of his story will follow. Watch this space!