The Great White Hope

Paul Blow

While the wine world has been focused on Pinot Noir, another grape has been climbing in popularity: Riesling. A wine that was always the butt of jokes because of the complete indecipherability of German labels—where words like trockenberenauslese and erbacher marcobrunn might appear—is suddenly a contender.

According to an article in the trade publication Wine Business Monthly, between November 2003 and August 2006 sales of the German grape grew 72 percent, a rate surpassed only by Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. Overall, imported Riesling sales are up 155 percent, leading some industry analysts to believe that Riesling could surpass Sauvignon Blanc to become the third-leading white variety after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.

Riesling spans high-low perhaps better than any other grape. It can be sweet or dry, austere or approachable. It can also be inexpensive—the biggest growth in Riesling sales has been in the under-$7 category and in $7–$11. Riesling is versatile: There’s no better wine for Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian food, not to mention most vegetables, fruits, fish, and pork. And it hasn’t hurt sales that Riesling is widely believed to make a sweet wine, and a lot of Americans still like sweet wines.

Sommeliers and collectors prize top-quality Riesling, both dry and off-dry, for what they call its transparency (a.k.a. terroir)—the wine’s ability to display elements of the soil it’s grown in. German Rieslings from the Mosel are prized for their slatelike qualities; Alsatian ones are often distinguished by their calcareous texture.

Germany may be Riesling’s home, but it is hardly the only place where the grape produces great wines. In Australia it does too, and its sales grew from 1,900 cases in 2001 to 57,000 in 2005. Funny thing, then, that in the last 15 years California acreage of the grape has shrunk by almost a third. With huge leaps over that time in plantings of Chardonnay, Merlot, and, more recently, Pinot Noir, it’s obvious that no one saw the Riesling craze coming.

It will take time for California growers to convert cool vineyard sites into Riesling acreage, and the delay could mean a huge opportunity for other wine regions. New York’s Finger Lakes area already produces world-class Riesling, such as the wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank or Fox Run. Riesling is already the number one white grape of Washington state, offering good values in brands like Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue, and Covey Run. Two boutique producers in Oregon, Brooks and Holloran, routinely make fabulous Rieslings, and even Michigan has arrived on the scene with the well-regarded Peninsula Cellars. And then you can search for the excellent wines of New Zealand—which tend to be (but are not always) a little on the sweet side—and Australia, which are almost always dry. France, Germany, and Austria produce the most pristine (and pricey) bottles, though German Riesling continues to be one of the greatest value-for-the-money categories on Earth.

The fact that Riesling styles vary confusingly between sweet and dry was always thought to be a liability for the grape commercially. However, I find Riesling so often delightful that as long as the wine is in balance—meaning that it’s not cloyingly sweet or enamel-strippingly dry—I don’t really care.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.