In the early days of the modern Washington wine industry, Riesling was the state's go-to grape. Back then, the perception about Washington was that it was too cold to grow many wine grapes, even though the Columbia Valley is on the same latitude as France's famed Bordeaux region.
Thus, cool-climate varieties such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer were favorites in those nascent days.
But as grape growers and winemakers matured, and the arid Columbia Valley gained a reputation for being able to ripen any grape, a move toward varieties that were gaining traction in California (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay) began to go into the soil at a much faster clip than Riesling.
However, in the past decade, Riesling has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Last fall, Washington winemakers crushed 32,100 tons of Riesling, compared with just 10,600 tons in 2001. That made it the No. 2 grape -- barely -- to Chardonnay.
Chateau Ste. Michelle has led the resurgent interest in Riesling, thanks in large part to its launch of Eroica in 2000 (with the 1999 vintage). This premium wine is made in collaboration with Ernst Loosen of Germany. The Woodinville winery crafts about 750,000 cases of Riesling alone, making it one of the world's largest Riesling producers.
While Ste. Michelle might be the biggest game in town, it isn't the only one. Pacific Rim Winemakers in West Richland, Wash., crafts more than 100,000 cases, and Hogue Cellars in Prosser and Covey Run in Sunnyside also produce large quantities.
With summer's arrival, Riesling is the perfect wine to enjoy under sunny skies, as the best examples are cool, crisp and refreshing. They pair with a wide variety of dishes, especially Thai, Chinese, Indian and Mexican cuisine, as well as seafood and chicken.
Here are a few to consider.
Mercer Estates 2008 Riesling, Yakima Valley, $14: Winemaker David Forsyth ranged no more than five miles from his new Prosser winery for these grapes. The wine shows a steely approach with notes of Granny Smith apple, firm nectarine, sugar cane, minerality, river rock, petrol and beeswax. The residual sugar of 1.3 percent is whisked clean.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2009 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $9: With nearly 650,000 cases produced, this is the single largest bottling of wine in the Pacific Northwest. On the nose are aromas of Granny Smith apples and white peaches, followed by a whiff of river rock and chalkboard dust. A sip brings guava and some mango on the entry, then Pink Lady apples and Bosc pears with more minerality and acidity that loiters.
Covey Run Winery 2008 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $9: Here's another case for Washington showing itself as one of the world's leaders for this German variety, both in scale, quality and value. Gala apple, slate, minerality and lemon aromas lead to more orchard fruit and a big blast of tangerine acidity from the midpalate on through. It's a mouth-watering finish to the sweetness, which is at 2.1 percent sugar.
Hyatt Vineyards 2008 Riesling, Rattlesnake Hills, $10: Andy Gamache continues to be one of the region's most underrated winemakers for producing quality, quantity and value. Cool conditions at the end of the season allowed him to elicit aromas of Golden Delicious apple, apricot, peach, lychee and pear butter. The sweet entry is akin to a peach melba, joined by more apples and apricots with tangerinelike acidity that continues to churn the flavors and balance the 5 percent residual sugar.
Samson Estates Winery 2008 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $15: This winery in Everson shows off many of riesling's finer points, opening with notes of jasmine, apple blossom, lychee and apricot. Golden Delicious apple leads the box full of orchard fruit flavors on the palate. There's a fascinating nibble of nasturtium blossom in the midpalate, then a dash of lime juice to balance the tiny amount of sweetness.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.