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Friday Fishwrap
Riesling: Still Waiting in the Wings?

By Stephen Eliot

There are a good many people who passionately hold fast to the belief that Riesling is responsible for the world’s greatest white wine. There are days when I am much inclined to agree.

I recall that Riesling was the first “serious” wine that I ever bought. After graduating from jugs of Hearty Burgundy to the likes of Mateus and Lancer’s Rose and inexpensive Beaujolais and Macon Blancs in my long-ago college years, I remember heeding the advice of a local wine merchant near campus and took home a 1971 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese from J. J. Prüm. Most of us who have set aside common sense and made wine a profession have a bottle or two the indelible memories of which remain almost electric and undiminished through the years. For many of us, they were those catalysts of change, the shiny objects which lead us astray, and Herr Prüm’s remarkable Mosel was one of mine.

Oh, the passion for Bordeaux and Burgundy would come, and California’s miracle decade of the 1970s brought new can’t-live-without favorites that ate up the little disposable income I had at the time, but top-flight Riesling from the finest estates still entertains, informs and involves as only truly great wine can. I enjoyed it while a wide-eyed, eager-to-learn tyro, and it still shows me new things today.

Several years back, it seemed that we were on the verge of a new era in New World winemaking. A Riesling “Renaissance”, as it was called, appeared to be in the making, but now I am not so sure. There is no question that there are more fine North American Rieslings to be had than ever before, and some such as the Eroica and Poet’s Leap bottlings from Columbia Valley are world-class efforts by any standard. Still, despite the best and often impressive efforts of Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan and New York, real excitement for Riesling has failed to materialize in the broad marketplace.

The simple charms of sweet and fizzy Moscatos have captured the fancies of younger wine drinkers, and the adventurous fringe in search of the next new thing in white wines have ignored Riesling in favor of esoteric varietals ranging from Grüner Veltliner and Verdelho to Ribolla Gialla and Assyrtiko. I cannot help but think that Riesling has gotten lost in the shuffle.

During the some twenty-odd years I taught the wine classes at the California Culinary Academy, my lectures and tastings of Riesling were among the most universally popular, and, while I would like to take some of the credit, I know full well that it was not me but the wine that got my students excited. I recall more than once hearing the comment from even those well-versed in the culinary arts that they simply did not know what they had been missing. I wonder if there are not legions of wine-drinkers out there who might now say the same.

I would not make the claim that North American Riesling is the absolute equal of the best to found from the Mosel and Rhein. We have some way to go. I am, however, still hopeful that its fifteen-minutes of fame and interest have not passed and that it will not go back to being the underappreciated wine that it was for so many years. It will take the right people and the right places to make it all that it can be, but, then, look what happened to West Coast Pinot Noir!


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