Washington returns to its Riesling roots
The state's acreage doubled from 2002 to 2006.
Wade Wolfe said it's only a matter of a few years before Riesling becomes the next overplanted grape
The renewed popularity of Riesling wines has been called everything from "Riesling revival" and "Riesling resurgence," to "Riesling renaissance."
Whatever you call it, the white variety has made a comeback and is once again favored by consumers. Washington wine grape growers are responding to the strong demand by planting more acreage.
Dr. Wade Wolfe, viticultural consultant and co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington, has been involved with the wine industry for nearly 30 years. Riesling, he said, is no different than other agricultural commodities that go though cycles, from strong growth to recession usually in about 20 years.
Last year, the big news was the sharp increase in Riesling tonnage during crush, up 27 percent from the previous year and 44 percent more than two years ago, and an acreage survey that showed a doubling of Riesling acreage since the 2002 survey.
Now, Pacific Rim Wine Company is establishing a winery near Richland, Washington, that will be dedicated to Riesling.
Wolfe thinks that the wine industry missed the boat years ago in not providing consumers a sweeter style of wine. "The consumers tried to convince themselves that they want to drink dry wine, but they really still prefer a sweeter style," he said. "We abandoned a significant portion of the American consumers when we moved away from --Riesling.
"That's why we now see a resurgence or coming back to Riesling."
Riesling has shed its low-quality image, and the wines are now being promoted seriously, he added. As an increasing number of wine writers feature it, consumers keep coming back for more. "The limiting factor for wineries to produce more Riesling has been the availability of grapes," he said.
Also, Washington growers are making cultural changes to minimize the effect of hot summers to improve the quality, which will help make the wines more delicate, Wolfe noted. "The biggest error in irrigation we make right now is under-watering our whites."
Wolfe is confident that the variety will be overplanted. "It's like any other cyclical agricultural product, I'm sure of it. Some say that it's overplanted now, but I think it'll be in the next few years."
He believes there will be a realignment of what has been planted and where the market is heading. "We're not very good at predicting what the consumer is going to like in the future. So, you have to make your best projections based on the current sales data."
Market data compiled by ACNielsen show an upward trend in Riesling sales. Between November 2003 and last August, sales had grown by about 70 percent with the case volume growing by nearly 60 percent in that time period.
However, the variety has less elasticity than other varietals because the vast majority of the Riesling wines sell for under $10 per bottle, Wolfe said, noting that it's hard for small wineries to compete against the large corporate wineries at that price level.
"And the $10 bottle makes it hard for wineries to get grower prices much past $700 to $800 per ton. You need to get the winery price up in order to get a better return for the grower."
He sees long-term Riesling contracts between the grower and winery beneficial in providing stability and enough time for growers to recoup investment costs and make a profit.
The oldest Riesling block at Gamache Vineyards was planted in 1983, a block that has been in and out of Ste. Michelle Wine Estate's high-end Eroica Riesling wine program, said Roger Gamache, grower and co-owner of Gamache Vintners in Benton City.
The Gamaches added to their Riesling acreage four or five years ago, and today have almost 40 acres. In hindsight, he still regrets pulling out about 15 acres of Riesling from one of their oldest blocks in the late 1990s.
"I've always believed in Riesling," said Gamache, adding that he thinks the upsurge in consumption will last. "I just wasn't sure when the consumer would show up."
Riesling makes a great white wine in many different styles and flavors, going from fruity, apricot and peach background flavors to steely, mineral flavors, he noted. "Consumers love a good white wine, and we can make a high-quality Riesling here in Washington."
Although growers now have a better handle on how to grow quality Riesling grapes, it is a variety that is prone to mildew and rot if rain comes late in the season. Gamache said vine maturity has led to a major improvement in the state's overall Riesling quality. As the vines mature, grape quality becomes more consistent, he said. "The vines are not as sporadic in quality from one end of the vine row to the other."
But not all wine grape growers are --anxious to ride the Riesling wave.
Pasco grower Mike Reed no longer has Riesling planted. His contract with Ste. Michelle specified that all Riesling grapes be removed by 1999, and since then, he hasn't replanted the white variety.
Vineyardist Dick Boushey of Grandview, Washington, is one who has avoided planting the variety during his grape growing career. "I think it's a wonderful grape and I love to drink it, but it just doesn't fit my operation. I'm not going to chase the trend of planting Riesling. Like everything else, I believe we will overdo it."
Boushey, who sells his grapes to about 30 small wineries, is planting Rhone white varieties like Roussanne and Marsanne and new clones of Chardonnay in response to the renewed interest in white wines.
He acknowledged that Washington growers have a competitive advantage in growing high-quality Riesling. "That's something we should exploit," he said.
High-end Rieslings, such as Eroica from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Poet's Leap from Long Shadows Vintners, have created a lot of demand, he added.
Although a lot of Riesling and Pinot Gris are still being planted, it's difficult to get a contract for Riesling unless the grower is willing to pull out another variety, Boushey said. "You can't buy a Riesling or Pinot Gris plant from the nurseries. To me, that says 'stay away.'"
Ste. Michelle is still expanding its Riesling acreage from contracted growers and there are still more acres to be planted, replied Kevin Corliss, director of viticulture for Washington's mega wine producer. But the "white-hot" planting of a few years ago that resulted in a big acreage swing to Riesling has slowed down, he noted.
Corliss characterized today's Riesling planting as more controlled and planned than the speculative planting previously taking place in the state. "The door is not shut on planting. There's very strong demand for the variety and still more acreage to be planted, but growth is better planned, and the wineries and growers are more cautious than in years past."