Riesling: Where Washington wines began

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The first grape variety to bring notoriety to Washington State was Riesling.

When the Washington State wine industry was young so were Washington State's wine drinkers.

There is nothing easier to drink than a chilled Riesling with crisp acidity and a bit of sweetness.

To this day Rieslings can be the wine of choice for the less experienced wine drinker as they provide aromas of peach or spice, complexity of flavor, and easy quaffability.

The grape known as Riesling originates in Germany and the Alsace region of France.

There are several varieties that are considered "noble" grape varieties and Riesling definitely takes its place amongst these esteemed varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon are other examples of noble varieties). Early on, American winemakers borrowed the name Johannisberg from the most famous winery in Germany and called the variety Johannisberg Riesling. The World Court decided awhile ago that this was inappropriate and accordingly it is now illegal to use this name.

Another point of confusion has been the term "White Riesling." In the late 1980s an attempt was made to create different names for different sweetness levels in Rieslings.

Dry Riesling was to be less than 0.5% residual sugar, Riesling to be between 0.5% to 2.5%, and White Riesling to be above 2.5%. This never took hold and so Johannisberg Riesling and White Riesling are actually just Riesling.

The wine made from Riesling can vary considerably.

Here at White Heron Cellars we made a completely dry Riesling (dry meaning no sugar) for many years. These wines can age for years. Off dry Rieslings and sweet Rieslings are more common than dry and particularly in Washington State we tend to make Rieslings that are around 2% residual sugar. Last but not least Riesling can make outstanding Late Harvest or Ice Wines. These tend to be very sweet (20 to 30 % residual sugar) and are bottled in small bottles with large price tags.

Riesling suffers a bit from the idea that it is only a sweet beginners wine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Riesling can be very complex in flavor and aroma. In addition it can age very well.

We are still drinking White Heron Dry Rieslings from the early '90s and enjoying them thoroughly. Chateau Ste Michelle has teamed together with a German winemaker and makes a very expensive Riesling called Eroica. Late Harvest or Ice Wine Rieslings can be long-lived as well as bursting with flavor.

Riesling can be very versatile with food. It is easy to serve as a pre-dinner wine although it can be a bit too sweet for some. But dry Rieslings can certainly be served in any situation one would serve a Chardonnay. Off-dry Rieslings can match a fruit salad and also will pair well with spicy hot food.

The acidity and sugar stand up very well to hot peppers. Thus Riesling can pair well with Asian or Mexican cuisine. Late Harvest or Ice Wine Rieslings should be consumed with desert or by themselves after dinner, much like a port.

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