Riesling was one of the first grape varieties grown in Washington and even today it’s the state’s second most produced white variety, following chardonnay. Much of this volume is accounted for by Chateau Ste. Michelle, the world’s largest producer of riesling. This huge winery’s riesling was originally catapulted to fame when the 1972 release finished first in a Los Angeles Times blind tasting of white rieslings back in 1974, and demand for this fruit-driven, easy-drinking wine has never flagged. By most accounts, CSM produces close to a million cases a year of their ten-dollar Columbia Valley Riesling today.
But if you’re willing to spend a bit more, there have been some fascinating developments in Washington riesling in recent years, due in equal part to new vineyard plantings in especially cool spots and to a new generation of younger winemakers seeking to make more serious, complex wines from controlled vine yields. Here are some of my favorite current bottlings, culled from my annual coverage of new Washington State releases in Issue 171 of the International Wine Cellar.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s joint venture with the renowned Mosel winemaker Ernst Loosen has allowed the winery to create a flagship range of more distinctive high-end rieslings, including some scarce and very rich sweet wines from botrytized grapes. The pale, green-tinged 2012 Riesling Eroica Columbia Valley ($20) leads off with lively aromas of lime peel, white peach, licorice and spring flowers complicated by brown spices. Grapefruit and white peach flavors combined with bracing acidity and the firming effect of some unabsorbed carbon dioxide keep this intense riesling considerably drier than its moderate 16 grams per liter of residual sugar would suggest.
In recent years, white wine specialist Efesté Wines has been making sappy, brisk, highly concentrated rieslings that are worth a special search. Their 2012 Riesling Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley ($18), from the same very cool vineyard on which the Eroica riesling is based, is lower in residual sugar and higher in acidity than the CSM version. Aromas of lemon drop and subtle brown spices lead to a densely packed palate with slightly sweet white peach, ginger and dusty mineral flavors enlivened by saline acidity. The finish boasts an exhilarating balance of saline and citrus elements and a tactile character.
Two famous old names in Walla Walla Valley both produced very good rieslings from the 2012 vintage. The Figgins Family Wine Estates 2012 Riesling Walla Walla Valley ($30) offers scents of peach, mirabelle, lime, flowers and fresh herbs. Sexy yellow fruit and ginger flavors display a hint of sweetness nicely buffered by lively acidity. This chewy, lightly saline riesling finishes with very good grip. Woodward Canyon, long known for their red wines and their chardonnays, has a winner with their 2012 Dry White Riesling Columbia Valley ($25), whose aromas of subtle brown spices, spring flowers and petrol reminded me of a German riesling from the relatively warm Pfalz region. This juicy, dry wine boasts very good penetration and cut to its tactile white peach flavor and finishes brisk and persistent.
The Long Shadows Vintners Collection’s 2012 Riesling Poet’s Leap Columbia Valley ($20) is made by top German winemaker Armin Diel. Its nose captivates with highly nuanced aromas of peach, nutmeg, ginger, Thai basil and crushed stone. In the mouth, dense, juicy flavors of peach and ripe apple show an attractive touch of sweetness leavened by sound acidity. This subtle, refined riesling finishes with enticing lingering sweetness and a light touch.
Working with 25-year-old vines, David O’Reilly makes a riesling with off-the-charts acidity nicely buffered by a bit of residual sweetness. The 2011 Riesling DuBrul Vineyard Yakima Valley ($21), bottled under his Owen Roe label, displays aromas of saline oyster shell and nutty oatmeal, plus a whiff of medicinal menthol. An intense lemon drop flavor carries through to the sappy, building finish.
Rasa Vineyards may be better known for its red wines but winemaker Billo Naravan’s rieslings have also excelled in my tastings of new Washington State releases in recent vintages. The 2012 Riesling The Composer Columbia Valley ($30) was one of my top rieslings of the year from Washington. Vibrant aromas of lime, kumquat and caraway seed lead to a remarkably complex, pure palate featuring flavors of lime, ginger, white pepper and wet stone. The finish is very long, dry and saline, with a hint of chewiness and a repeating citrus quality. This superb, Mosel-like riesling will almost certainly take on a classic petrol quality with time in bottle.