I just spent three days at the chummiest international wine gathering I've ever attended: Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle.
Cabernet makers snipe at each other. Pinot makers have a friendlier rivalry, but are quick to assert the supremacy of their region. Chardonnay makers cash their paychecks; is there such a thing as a Chardonnay confab?
Riesling is a bit of an underdog. It's beloved by sommeliers and wine geeks, but distrusted by the majority of wine drinkers no matter what folks like me write. Maybe that's why its producers stick together.
Credit Germany's Ernst Loosen (right) and his partner at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bob Berthau (left), for creating the feeling of an international collaboration of folks who love the greatest grape that's not really mainstream. Everybody who makes Riesling is invited to the Rendezvous. We had Alsatian Rieslings with lunch on Monday, and Michigan Rieslings with lunch on Tuesday, and both were treated with equal respect.
The most fun part were two large blind tastings, one for dry Rieslings and one for off-dry. With 14 wines from 7 countries, it was tricky. The German Rieslings were the easiest to call, particularly in the off-dry category, where they were the sweetest, most complex and best. But other countries were a mystery, and no wonder: Do Canadian Rieslings really taste New World? Does New Zealand Riesling have a signature flavor?
Here are a few bullet points from the 3-day confab:
* Riesling from Germany's Mosel region, 100 years ago, was perhaps the most expensive wine in the world. Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof made an interesting point about why. At the time, few people in Europe had ever tasted mango or tropical fruit; moreover, they would only enjoy fresh stone fruit like peaches and apricots for a few weeks each year. Imagine how exciting a Mosel Riesling -- tasting of all these exotic fruits -- must have been, particularly in winter.
* In addition to the Finger Lakes in New York, North and South Dakota are currently ideal terroir for Riesling, according to climatologist Dr. Greg Jones. But if global warming continues at its current pace, the best Riesling terroir might all be north of the Canadian border.
* Riesling producers have gotten very sensitive to the use of "diesel" as a descriptor for its aromas. I heard more than one diatribe about stupid wine writers who insist on using this. Well, call me stupid -- that's what it smells like. Sometimes.
* Austrian producer Willi Brundlmayer believes Riesling peaks at 7 years of age, but nobody drinks it at that point because Riesling buyers fall into two camps: those who like it young (me) for its exotic fruit flavors, and those who like it old for its complexity and secondary characteristics like walnuts, chalk and caraway seeds. Because Riesling will last as long as any other white wine, thanks to its acidity, people who cellar it hold onto it forever.
I hope to test Brundlmayer's theory in another year, because currently 7-year-old European Rieslings are from the anomaly heatwave vintage of 2003.
* Which brings up another point: Rieslings in Europe vary tremendously by vintage. Producers talk about letting the grape be what it is. In the US, producers are more likely to try to keep a similar style from year to year, although there are certainly exceptions, particularly in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But if you're Chateau Ste. Michelle (did you know it's the world's largest Riesling producer? I didn't) you have to try to keep consistent for your customers.
* My wife has a hard time distinguishing the words "Austria" and "Australia." Fortunately, in Riesling she needn't worry, as they're similar styles and different from the rest of the world. Both are invariably dry and often impressively complex. But check the alcohol percentage before buying: Some are edging up above 14%, which is a shock to the system if you're expecting something like a 9% wine from Germany.
* Wow. German Riesling. Lots of countries make great Riesling, but the plurality of delightful, elegant ones are still from Deutschland (which reminds me: During the World Cup, why did TV networks use "Esp" as shorthand for Spain (Espana) but "Ger" for Germany? Why not "Deu"?)
* People don't think of Riesling as a French wine, because it's grown only in Alsace and the bottles look vaguely German. In fact, it turns out that Champagne would be great Riesling terroir climate-wise. But French wine laws are too strict to allow it, which is a pity -- imagine how great this terroir-driven grape would be on Champagne's limestone soils.
(While you're imagining that, go patronize my advertiser -- buy 6 or more bottles of French wine and get 1/2 off shipping with coupon code "blake39".
Doesn't have to be Riesling, but the store has three Rieslings I loved at this event: Hugel et Fils 2008 Riesling [$19.29], a fine food wine; Kuentz-Bas Riesling Tradition 2008 [$15.29], a superb value from Kermit Lynch with great fruit and acidity; and Trimach Cuvee Frederich Emile Riesling 2002 [$48.19], which seemed to be at peak drinking period, balancing lime fruit with secondary flavors.)
* Wine Opinions research shows that a majority of US consumers think Riesling is only a sweet white wine -- and moreover, that people who don't know Riesling don't want to try it. But consumers who do love Riesling actually don't care much about food and wine pairing; weird, because that's the variety's biggest strength. Riesling "partisans" often drink it as an aperitif. Get those partisans some green papaya salad!
* Wine Opinions also showed that members of the wine trade believe the highest quality Rieslings come from Alsace, Germany and Austria, while the best value Rieslings come from Germany and Washington.
* There isn't much money for Riesling technical research, so most producers have no idea what clones are in their vineyards or even what kind of impact different clones make. This is a lot different from Pinot or Cabernet, where some geeky winemakers even put the clone in the wine's name.
* California lags behind the rest of the US in Riesling consumption, a shocker to me because I live in a bubble of wine lovers. Maybe that's because California makes lousy Riesling (with apologies to Navarro and Esterlina, who don't.) California was the largest Riesling region not represented at any of the major blind tastings.
* I had never heard of Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario, but their 2000 Dry Riesling -- not even a reserve or single vineyard wine -- was outstanding.
* Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Riesling 2009 stumped just about everyone because it was so beautiful and complex, like an Old World wine, but with the intensity of a New World wine. One of my favorites from the event.
* Riesling varies so much from Oregon to Alsace that it's easy to drink it for three days without getting bored. I'm finishing up this blog posting at 11 p.m. on the last night of the Rendezvous, and my one regret is that I don't have a glass of Riesling with me. But tomorrow's another day.