October 16, 2006
Three Reasons for Riesling

Usually when sweatshirt weather rolls around I pretty much stick to red wine. White wines are fine when you're lounging around in a T-shirt, but cooler temperatures call for adjustments, and that means a sweatshirt to protect you against the chill and red wine to warm you up inside.

Nevertheless, there I was Sunday evening, in a sweatshirt, sitting down to a blind flight of six chilled rieslings, the most refreshing of white wines associated with the warmer temperatures of summer.

But riesling's popularity is soaring. Wine Business Insider reported this past week that sales of riesling in the United States over the past three years have grown 72 percent. Only pinot grigio and pinot noir are showing stronger growth. Their success has been well documented, but riesling's new popularity is still largely under the radar.

West Coast vintners, however, have taken notice, and aren't letting the state's dearth of riesling vineyards deter them from introducing new bottlings of the varietal. At least six vintners have turned to riesling's historic homeland - Germany - to acquire riesling to be bottled under their own labels and sold in the United States. They include Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, and Ironstone Vineayrds in Calaveras County.

Thus my Sunday tasting. I tasted through the wines, all recently released but not all from Germany, and found three I especially liked. They represented three distinct styles.

The driest and most austere was the Claiborne & Churchill 2005 Central Coast Dry Riesling ($18). Made in the stern traditional Alsatian style, it's an acquired taste for people reared on the lush fruit of California wines. The open-minded and patient, however, will be rewarded with honeyed and floral smells and a flavor suggestive of delicate melon. It's a wine best poured with food, such as roast chicken and shellfish, rather than taken as an aperitif.

The most refreshing of the off-dry style of the varietal was the Jekel Vineyards 2005 Monterey Riesling ($12). With an aroma of dried apricot, peaches and honey, it seemed at first just simple and sweet, but as it warmed slightly more spice and an intriguing mineral element crept it to make it the most complex riesling in the tasting.

One of the sweeter wines in the roundup, the Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks California Riesling ($6), was my overall favorite, not so much for the sweetness as its lean structure, razory acidity and overall balance. There's plenty of fruit in there as well, mostly apricots and peaches, but with additional suggestions of jasmine, spice and smoke, the latter a mystery, given that the wine was fermented in stainless steel with no oak aging whatever. Despite its slight build, it went swimmingly with a spunky pesto. The winery also recommends it with holiday foods like roast turkey and spicy Thai dishes. Given the growing popularity of riesling generally, and the awards that Fetzer has been getting for recent vintages of this wine, don't expect that bargain price to last for long.

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