Riesling’s homeland is, of course, Germany, where it all started. Likely a descendant of wild grape vines growing in the Rheingau region, Riesling was first noted in 1435 and recorded as ‘Riesslingen’ in a record of a sale of grape vines made on 13 March of that year. As a result, the date has been designated as the variety’s unofficial birthday and decreed International Riesling Day.
Riesling’s fortunes rose and fell throughout the centuries. It had its moments; in the 18th century, based on a decree made in the Mosel Valley, all grape vines were removed and replaced with Riesling. In the 19th century, its prominence rose to equal that of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for 25 American Rieslings from US editor Clive Pursehouse
The First and Second World Wars devastated German vineyards and, along with them, the fortune of Riesling. It wasn’t until 500 years after Riesling’s ‘birthday’ that America’s Riesling revival began on the shores of New York’s Finger Lakes.
Born in the USA
There was a lot of Riesling being made in the US before Prohibition, having been brought over by German immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century. Like much of America’s pre-Prohibition wine history, the finer points have been lost.
In 1958 Dr Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD in growing wine grapes in cooler climates, planted Riesling on the western shore of New York’s Keuka Lake.
His vision would launch New York’s modern fine wine production, particularly the state’s Finger Lakes reputation for producing world-class Riesling.
Despite modern American Riesling’s connection to New York, Washington State produces and grows more Riesling than any other state in the nation. First planted in the Yakima Valley in the late 1960s, the state now has over 2,100ha of Riesling vines. It was spearheaded by Chateau Ste Michelle, the largest single Riesling producer in the world.
Riesling in the Empire State
No region in the United States is as synonymous with Riesling as New York’s Finger Lakes. There are 405ha of Riesling vines planted in the Finger Lakes region, where more than 130 wineries produce 1,200,000 bottles a year. Riesling is the wine with which this region’s reputation has been built.
‘It could be argued that Riesling is an “underdog” variety,’ says Meaghan Frank, great-granddaughter of Konstantin Frank. ‘It is often misunderstood and not mainstream like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The history of the Finger Lakes also aligns with this idea. With very few exceptions, we are a region of small family farms with little outside investment.
‘Though our winemaking story begins in the mid-19th century,’ Frank continues, ‘we haven’t had the fast growth of other domestic regions. Because of this, we have been able to experiment freely. This is especially true when it comes to Riesling.
‘Today there is incredible experimentation with Finger Lakes producers seeking out different aspects and soil types in the vineyard and winemaking techniques like skin contact and extended lees ageing. That’s why in the Finger Lakes, few wineries do not produce a Riesling, and really only a few make just one style.’
Washington and the world’s Riesling giant
Riesling is also immensely important to Washington’s wine industry and the big label that got Washington wine off the ground: Chateau Ste Michelle.
‘Riesling put Chateau Ste Michelle on the map,’ says Katie Nelson, vice president of winemaking at the estate – the largest single Riesling producer in the world. ‘We’ve been passionate about Riesling for over 50 years and our goal is to showcase the quality and diversity that Riesling is capable of. We make up to nine different Rieslings from bone dry to decadently sweet to show off Riesling’s stylistic range. Our partnership with Ernst Loosen of Germany on Eroica has helped shape how we grow Riesling in Washington,’ she adds.
Ste Michelle is far from the state’s only Riesling producer. While the first Rieslings were planted here in 1967, the variety has a strong future. Its cooler region, the Ancient Lakes AVA, produces brilliant Rieslings, year after year, for various producers.
California Riesling in the Napa Valley and beyond
‘There are very few producers of Riesling today in the Napa AVA because so many producers didn’t, and don’t know, how to make it,’ says Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. ‘They don’t understand that our steep volcanic soils and warmer climate produce a slightly different grape from northern Europe and that to get the best out of the varietal, it cannot be made as it is made there,’ he adds.
Many of the Rieslings in California are made in a riper, slightly phenolic style. Trefethen aims for a Riesling that captures the variety’s aromatics. ‘Our style of Riesling hasn’t changed since we started making this wine in 1974,’ says Hailey Trefethen.
‘Riesling has incredible aromatics and flavours; we aim to preserve and capture those. We use a low and cold fermentation to capture all aromas in the bottle. Aiming for freshness, bright acidity, citrus and stone fruit flavours, and a nice chalky mineral texture. We time our picks based on acidity and flavours typically yielding wines with a final alcohol below 13%,’ she adds.
In Santa Barbara County, Graham Tatomer leads the way with Rieslings of savoury and saline character. The Tatomer wines are made in a style reminiscent of Austria for his eponymous Tatomer label. His devotion to Riesling and Grüner Veltliner offers great promise for uncommon varieties in California.
Oregon’s great Riesling terroir
The cool maritime influence that makes the Willamette Valley such a beautiful place for Pinot Noir makes it a brilliant match for Riesling. While Riesling might struggle for attention owing to the success of Pinot and the rising popularity of Oregon’s Chardonnay, it may succeed in the Willamette better than anywhere else on the West Coast.
The founding father of the Willamette Valley, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, did not plant Riesling. But several vintners who followed closely on his heels did. As a result, there are many old vine sites where Riesling vines are nearing their fourth and fifth decades.
Those older vines, the varied soil types of the Coast Range foothills alongside a cool climate make for some brilliant Riesling potential. Perhaps the two most prominent devotees of Riesling – Brooks Winery and Trisaetum – are perennially responsible for some of the best examples in the Valley.
Martin Woods’ winemaker Evan Martin has been making Riesling since the 2015 vintage and does so masterfully. From dry to botrytis-tinged iterations to off-dry classics. Martin and many of the Valley’s next generation have embraced Riesling’s potential as one of the best matches for the Willamette Valley.
American Riesling – varied and distinctive – shows the country’s various terroirs and styles. It does so across the country’s diverse wine regions. For enthusiasts, there is something for everyone when it comes to Riesling American style.