A happy home for Riesling

Special to The Times

IN the last 15 years, Washington state’s Columbia Valley has become one of California’s chief rivals for majestic reds, earning a solid reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon, for Syrah and especially for Merlot. Washington Merlots, in fact, are some of the finest in the world.

But more recently, the region has started to fulfill the early promise of another noble variety, Riesling. Riesling is on a roll in Washington; it’s being made with better focus and more care than ever, attracting winemakers from around the world to investigate the possibilities there.

In fact, one California winery, Bonny Doon, thinks so much of the Riesling there that it’s moving production of Pacific Rim, its Riesling-centric white wine operation, to a central Washington facility next year.

Much of the excitement has been generated by a collaborative effort between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen, a well-known winemaker from the Moselle River Valley in Germany. Loosen’s initial interest in Washington’s older Riesling plantings has served to rekindle interest in the grape there, leading to improved growing practices and leaps in quality in the bottle.


The result of the collaboration, Eroica Riesling, has been a stunning success. It’s poised to fuel a renaissance that may be as significant as the one sparked when the Drouhins, one of Burgundy’s prestigious winemaking families, purchased land in 1988 to grow Pinot Noir in Oregon.

Washington’s potential for great Rieslings has been hiding in plain sight for decades. More Riesling is produced in Washington than in any other state, and, at more than 300,000 cases, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates makes more than any other winery in the world. The bulk was sold in dependable, inexpensive bottlings by Washington’s larger wineries, such as Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Columbia Winery and Hogue, where the emphasis was more on quantity than quality.


Sidetracked for a spell

BUT while Washington was cornering the market, Americans’ wine tastes took a decidedly red shift, and demand for Riesling plummeted in the 1990s. Writers, critics and especially sommeliers, who rave about Riesling’s versatility with food, all hoped and assumed there would one day be a revival. After all, Riesling is considered one of the world’s great varieties -- ethereal, mercurial, chameleonic -- with a wider range of flavors than perhaps any other grape on Earth. But no one could say when a revival might come, or from where.

Meanwhile many of Washington’s older Riesling vines were ripped out and replaced with Cabernet and Merlot. “It [Riesling] had fallen in and out of favor,” says Woodward Canyon’s Rick Small, who has been making a dry, Alsatian-style Riesling since 1981. “It’s sort of a miracle, but a few superior vineyards in the state were spared.”

Small seized upon these special older sites, as did Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery and Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron Cellars, who each persevered with high-quality, artisanal wines in minuscule quantities.

But it took someone like Ernst Loosen to up the ante.


Loosen, a German who has run his family’s 200-year-old Dr. Loosen winery on the Moselle since 1987, had little choice but to believe in Riesling’s future. “We’re stuck with our variety,” he says. “We have had to live with it, and to make a strong commitment to it.” But he felt he needed to broaden his scope. So in 1997 he went to Woodinville, Wash., outside of Seattle, to see Ste. Michelle’s then-chief executive Allen Shoup and discuss a joint project.

“He said,” Shoup remembers, “ ‘I believe there’s going to be a Riesling renaissance, and it’s not going to be in the Old World, it’s got to be from here in the New World.’ ” Loosen had tasted Australian Rieslings, where a feathery, lime-scented style was coming into vogue. But for Loosen, these fell short. For him, Washington was the place.

At first glance, eastern Washington seems like an unlikely place to grow anything, let alone Riesling, which normally thrives in cool northern latitudes, rather marginal climates like Alsace, Austria, and especially Germany, which is home to some of the world’s northernmost grape-growing regions.

The entire eastern half of Washington amounts to a huge, semiarid desert, bordered by the towering Cascade Mountains to the west, which collect nearly every drop of east-bearing precipitation. West of the Cascades is a verdant, pine-forested wonderland. East, it’s dramatically barren: vast treeless plains and broad, sloping basalt mesas baking under cloudless skies.


The average rainfall in Woodinville, where Ste. Michelle and other wineries are headquartered, approaches 40 inches; in Pasco, the heart of wine country, it’s 6. But owing to the Columbia River, the valley has long been a bread- and fruit-basket. Its apples are legendary, in part because the fruit ripens well in hot summers and the trees can endure cold winters, but also because cool autumn evenings bring a crisp acidity to the fruit. It’s the same with Riesling vines.

Cool autumn nights are the secret to good Riesling: They enable the grapes to develop and retain their invigorating “backbone” of acidity. “What really makes it work is the weather right now, late September and into October,” says Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle’s director of vineyard operations, “when the temperature drop between day and night is like 40 degrees.” That’s 80 to 40, in a matter of hours.

Loosen visits Washington twice a year, leaving Corliss and Ste. Michelle’s director of winemaking, Bob Bertheau, to act as caretakers while he’s away. They gather in December for elaborate blending trials, with samples on the table of Riesling from more than 80 sites.

Two vineyards typically rise to the top for the Eroica blend: Evergreen, a high-elevation site nearly due east of Seattle, and Viewcrest, about 100 miles away, near Columbia Valley’s warmest appellation, Red Mountain.


“If you were on Viewcrest at dusk this week, you’d need a very warm jacket,” says Bertheau. “We’re lucky if we’re at 21 Brix on Oct. 25th; most other regions are going to be much higher in sugar by this time.”


Playing with nature

THE team’s challenge each year is to delay harvest for as long as possible, slowing the growth cycle through the summer so that fall can work its magic. Summer heat accelerates a plant’s physiology, and a low-yielding vine would push its fruit to ripeness in August -- fine if you want ripe fruit, not so good if you want complex, ripe fruit.


“Early ripeness doesn’t do anything for the Riesling,” says Loosen. “It’s important that you extend the hang time.” So Loosen convinced the Ste. Michelle growers to leave more fruit on the vine. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we normally want,” says Corliss.

“The prevailing wisdom in this country is [that] to increase the quality of the crop, you must decrease the amount of fruit per vine, and expose that fruit to the sun. But it worked. When we added to yields and gave them less exposure, it gave us the kind of quality we wanted.”

“A heavier crop slows it down,” says Bertheau. “It’s like anti-viticulture.”

The effect was evident almost from the first vintage. Rather than ripe, cling peach flavors and a heavy, almost candied fruit quality (what Loosen calls marmalade), the Eroica is fresh and lithe, redolent of pears and apricot blossoms, leaner and drier than its counterparts. Its acids give the wine an electric feel in the mouth. Eroica is more substantial than most German Rieslings -- that’s Washington’s heat units at work -- but it finishes clean, pure and light.


Woodward Canyon’s Small was delighted with the debut of Eroica. Here was a quality wine that was made in enough quantity to show the world the grape’s potential in Washington: “Everything was in balance, in such proportion,” he says.

Eroica’s first release was in 1999; in 2000, Shoup retired from Ste. Michelle. He watched from the sidelines as his and Loosen’s brainchild took flight. A few fly-fishing trips later, Shoup returned to the game with a new company called Long Shadows. The idea was to take Ste. Michelle’s collaborative impulse and expand it -- dramatically.

Long Shadows is an umbrella winery for seven wines made by seven teams, beginning with Gilles Nicault, Shoup’s talented resident winemaker, who executes the vision of the all-star partners. These include Michel Rolland, Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, and former Penfold’s wine master John Duval, as well as California luminaries Philippe Melka and Randy Dunn.

For a German partner, Shoup asked Loosen whom he’d recommend (a noncompete clause prevented them from working together again). Loosen suggested Armin Diel, in the Nahe region, which led to the creation of Poet’s Leap Riesling.


One of Germany’s foremost wine and food writers, Diel is also responsible for his family’s centuries-old winery; he’s regarded as one of his country’s most successful at both professions. It’s an unlikely alliance of talents; his importer, Terry Theise, likens it to wine critic Robert Parker owning a first growth Bordeaux estate.

2005 marks only the third vintage of Poet’s Leap, but winemaker Nicault seems clear about what he wants: “I think we favor a slightly drier, Alsatian style,” he says, “with that kind of purity and complexity. We really want the minerality to show through, and that’s a little harder to read in a sweeter wine.” In fact, Nicault and Diel favor a smaller crop than Eroica’s, and they remove more leaf-canopy for a little more sun exposure on the fruit clusters.

The result is that Poet’s Leap tends to be the slightly richer wine; more peach than pear, a touch of that marmalade, but still pure and vibrant. But both wines signal a new style of Washington Riesling: focused and lean, rippling and bright.

No one is more pleased than the growers, whose income from Riesling fruit had fallen to record lows. “Back in the mid-'90s,” says Kent Walliser, who contributes fruit to Poet’s Leap, “we’d be lucky if we got $100, $200 a ton.” Now he can get as much as $1,000; that renewed attention in the vineyard is literally paying off.


“We’re all in kind of a ‘pinch me’ stage right now,” says Walliser. “What we thought was going to be this great grape turned out to be a dog there for a while. Now it’s this bright flower child again.”





Washington state Rieslings in the vanguard

2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen ‘Eroica’ Columbia Valley Riesling. A lively wine with a fresh green scent redolent of pear and peach tree blossoms, lovely pear flavors and a fresh and juicy fruit profile. Zesty acidity leads to an invigorating finish. At Wine House in West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731; and Mel & Rose Wine and Spirits in West Hollywood, (323) 655-5557, about $20.

2004 Long Shadows ‘Poet’s Leap’ Columbia Valley Riesling. This wine, a bit riper than the Eroica, possesses a distinctly Germanic set of flavors, including a touch of that “fusil” oily smell characteristic of certain Rieslings. Its flavors are rich and pure, like a jar of peach preserves, and they are supported nicely by its core of acid. At Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463; Liquid Wine and Spirits in Chatsworth, (818) 709-5019; and Woodland Hills Wine Co. in Woodland Hills, (818) 222-1111, about $25.


2005 Long Shadows ‘Poet’s Leap’ Columbia Valley Riesling. Youthful and bright, this wine is leaner and more vibrant than the 2004, with aromas of ripe yellow peaches laced with just a hint of smoke. On the palate it’s suave and rich, those peachy scents giving way to a generous and juicy peach flavor. This wine has a beautiful mouth-feel, rich without being heavy, and an elegant clean finish that leaves a mild almond aftertaste. At Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Liquid Wine and Spirits and Woodland Hills Wine Co., about $25.

2005 Woodward Canyon Yakima Valley Riesling. Winemaker Rick Small’s 2005 is in a dry Alsatian style, with a pretty, pure nectarine scent overlaying a fragrance of ripe pears. The flavors are in the pear spectrum, clean and dry with a crisp, almost flinty finish. Fewer than 200 cases made; at the winery website, $25;

2005 Seven Hills Winery Columbia Valley Riesling. Warm aromas of peach blossom meld with golden apple scents. There’s a finely rendered sweetness on the palate, the fruit a cross between ripe apple and dry peach; a fresh, nicely delineated acidity gives contour. At the winery website, $12;

-- Patrick Comiskey