Just 15 years ago, Riesling was barely of importance in Washington. Certainly, it was a high-production variety that had its niche, but Riesling wasn't taken seriously by the general public.
My how everything has changed -- and a lot of this has to do with Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington's oldest winery. Back in 1999, not even 10,000 tons of Riesling were harvested in Washington. Last year, that number was 36,700 tons.
The catalyst in the renaissance of American Riesling undoubtedly is Ste. Michelle, which now is the world's largest producer of the noble white wine. It all started with that 1999 vintage, the first year of a project called Eroica, which was a collaboration between Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen, a famed Riesling producer from Germany.
Ste. Michelle President Ted Baseler said Eroica happened because Bob Betz, then a Ste. Michelle executive, had lunch with Loosen.
"He talked with such enthusiasm about the vineyards of Washington," Baseler said. "We thought it would be a nice project. We didn't envision it as some kind of massive turnaround in the Riesling category. In retrospect, it really looks brilliant."
When Eroica took off, so did interest in Riesling, and Ste. Michelle ramped up its production and quality. Five years ago, it hired Wendy Stuckey as its white winemaker. She built a reputation in her native Australia as a top Riesling producer, and the combination of Stuckey, Loosen and head winemaker Bob Bertheau has taken Ste. Michelle to greater heights.
We recently tasted four new Ste. Michelle Rieslings, all from the 2012 vintage, and they are spectacular. Each should be easy to find regionally, and all but the Cold Creek Riesling will have broad national distribution.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Riesling, Columbia Valley, $10: This is likely the largest single bottling of Riesling anywhere in the world, and it seems a little unfair that it is so delicious. It is a stunning white wine that opens with aromas of tropical fruit, lime and slate, followed by fresh, clean, bright flavors of orchard fruit. The acidity lifts all the flavors without poking out, allowing the residual sugar to provide fleshiness without flabbiness. Enjoy with linguine in a cream sauce, seared scallops, fresh oysters or salmon.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley, $10: This is an outrageously delicious dry wine that is helping to change the national perception of Riesling being a sweet, one-dimensional wine. It opens with aromas of rose water, limeade, cotton candy and Asian pear. On the palate, the lip-smacking entry of Granny Smith apple and succulent lime give way to a rich mouth feel. This is built for grilled chicken, halibut, pasta or mildly spiced Asian dishes.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling, Columbia Valley, $18: This wine from 30-year-old vines is on the slightly sweeter side at 1.98 percent residual sugar, but the low pH of 3.01 helps round it out nicely. The result is a wine with aromas of tropical fruit, yellow grapefruit and lychee. On the palate, it opens with clean lines of lime, lemon and pear, followed by luscious flavors of apple and Mandarin orange, all leading to a bright and lengthy finish. Crab cakes could well be the perfect pairing with this wine.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Harvest Select Riesling, Columbia Valley, $10: This is the sweetest of Ste. Michelle's mainline Rieslings, and at 4.7 percent residual sugar, it is not shy in that department. Yet great acidity keeps everything in check. It opens with aromas of peach, apricot, apple and Thompson seedless grape, followed by beautifully balanced flavors of pear and nectarine. The acidity offers a bright lemon-lime finish that wraps up this delicious wine. This is a terrific Riesling to go with spicy Asian or Mexican dishes or as a late-afternoon summer sipper.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine; www.greatnorthwestwine.com