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Riesling On The Rise

By Charles Olken

If you are old enough to remember when there were 10,000 acres of Riesling in California and far less Chardonnay, you may feel, as I do, that there is a dark side to the changing fortunes of those grapes. During the last forty years or so, Chardonnay has jumped up to near 100,000 acres planted while Riesling fell to under 2,000. That Riesling in now back up to 4,000 is a hopeful sign, but, truth be told, much of the increase has been in places that are too warm to make fine wine. Nothing wrong with an inexpensive wine with a nice aroma or even the use of Riesling as a blending grape for its floral and peachy character, but Riesling in the form I love comes with bristling acidity and a penchant for giving me both beauty and a wake-up call to my palate.

Today, that kind of Riesling is hard to find in California, but when it does show itself, it is a reason to celebrate, and that is why a veritable crowd of Riesling lovers descended on Mendocino’s Anderson Valley for its annual Alsace Varietals Festival—so-called because Gewurztraminer from the Anderson Valley sets the pace in that variety not just in California but across the West and the rest of the country as well, Riesling is a very widely planted variety in Alsace.

I also miss Gewurztraminer and wish there were more it because it and Chenin Blanc join Riesling among the ranks of the missing when it comes to what we grew here both relative to the rest of the world, and sadly, relative to what we used to grow before the so-called aromatic whites went away under the onslaught of Chardonnay. I admit that I shoulder some of the blame in that I always drank more Chardonnay, even when it was the underdog, than the aromatic whites. Frankly, we all did, and we reveled in the arising here of world-class Chardonnay of the type that even the French had to admit was in a league with theirs.

Riesling is now on the rise, and that’s a good thing. Old local favorites like Navarro are being joined in success by the likes of producers whose names you will learn as their wines gain a foothold in the market. You may not see them in wide distribution but if Rieslings from folks like Balo, Brooks (Oregon producer with 17 separate bottlings), Maidenstoen, Stirm, Phillips Hill, Tatomer show up in your neighborhood, do give them a try. They are leading the small but on-going resurgence of this very special variety. Connoisseurs’ Guide has added its voice to the movement by reviewing Riesling (and Gewurztraminer) every year in September. There may not be enough of those varieties in existence, in our view, but what does exist has proven worthy of following—and enjoying.


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