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Riesling, the Survivor, Takes the Dry Road


Just a few decades ago, Riesling was an important grape in California. In 1975, the state had 8,000 acres of Riesling and 11,000 acres of Chardonnay. Today, however, there are just 2,000 acres of Riesling compared with 100,000 acres of Chardonnay, and a lot of people are ready to write its obituary.

But there are signs that Riesling may yet stage a comeback.

Part of Riesling's problem is an identity crisis. If you think of Riesling as a sweet white wine, then you overlook all the dry and off-dry Rieslings that work so well with foods or as light aperitifs. If you think of Riesling as a food wine, then you forget about its lusciousness when made in noticeably sweet styles.

If Riesling is to be revived, the impetus may come from overseas. For years, the world thought of Riesling only as "that sweet grape from Germany." Now, a significant challenge is coming from the Austrian Rieslings, which are notably low in sweetness and high in acidity. The growing popularity of Australian Riesling from Clare Valley has been led by wines made in a similar style.

These "new" Rieslings have brought about hints of a renaissance on the West Coast. Privately, a few of our winemakers admit having sold out of Riesling in record time (at least by the standards of the last decade), and one important producer raised prices by 20% last year, even as its Chardonnay prices stayed flat. So perhaps it is time for a thirsty world to reintroduce itself to Riesling.

This edition of Tasting Notes is divided between dry Rieslings and semisweet Rieslings. They are as different as night and day. I like the dry versions with food, especially fish and shellfish. The semisweet wines make excellent aperitifs and summertime quaffs. In either style, the grape's floral, minerally personality will stand in stark contrast to the bold, oaky, ripe-grape character of Chardonnay. In this world, there is plenty of room for both.


1999 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling, "Alsatian Style," Central Coast, $14. The traditional Alsatian version of Riesling is ripe, firm, fruity and dry, although makers are more prone to leave a little sugar in their wines these days. Claiborne & Churchill hew to the old manner: full-bodied and ripe but bone dry.

$* 1999 Geyser Peak Winery Dry Riesling, Russian River Valley, $12. Geyser Peak has an Australian winemaking team, and it is little wonder the vintners have produced a Riesling not unlike their homeland's. It's brisk and racy, with a blossomy, slightly peachy character, and it would make a very interesting choice with fresh fish or, as we enjoyed it the other night, with shrimp sauteed with butter, lemon juice and shallots.

1999 Madrona Vineyards Dry Riesling, El Dorado, $12. Madrona makes both dry and semisweet versions of Riesling, but I prefer this one because its light, bright floral personality shows better without the added sweetness. It has lovely aromas of carnation, peach and Gala apple, and if it's somewhat subdued in the mouth, it's brisk and lively and a real joy to drink with the right foods.

1999 Trefethen Vineyards "Estate" Dry Riesling, Napa Valley, $14. Trefethen Rieslings are always a bit of a challenge, because they tend to combine the full-bodied Alsatian style with the racy, steely fruit of Austria and Australia. The trick with this wine, as with many dry Rieslings, is to remember that it is a food wine and not for drinking alone. So drink it with oysters or shellfish.


$* * 2000 Chateau St. Jean Johannisberg Riesling, Sonoma County, $14. This wine and its compatriots under the "Semisweet" heading are noticeably sweet in taste: They typically have 2% to 4% sugar. This leaves them well short of the dessert wine category, although I confess that this wine and a freshly cut pear make a heavenly combination. It will make multiple appearances this summer as a well-chilled late picnic and afternoon drink for the Olkens, and I heartily recommend it to you for its outgoing succulent floral and white peach personality.

$ 1999 Fetzer Vineyards "Echo Ridge" Johannisberg Riesling, California, $8. Soft and distinctly sugary styling has been the hallmark of this popular and reasonably priced wine from its inception, and this vintage is no different. The wine is plump and easy-going in its sweet, ripe grape fruitiness.

1999 Geyser Peak Winery California Riesling, $8. Most years the distinctly sugary style of this wine is reminiscent of the Fetzer bottling, although this latest vintage is a little less sweet and runs towards aromas and flavors of candied pears and Crenshaw melons. Its inviting price adds to its attractions as a user-friendly quaff.

$ * * 1999 Paraiso Springs Vineyards Riesling, "Santa Lucia Highlands," Monterey County, $10. This winery is worried that low prices and low vineyard yields are going to push it out of the Riesling market in the future, but when I taste this well-balanced, peachy, minerally wine, I can only hope that you will join me in picking up a bottle or two and do your part in expanding the Riesling Revolution.

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