A typical Riesling vineyard in Germany’s Mosel region. Some of the steepest vineyards in the world are found in Germany.
The white Riesling grape, a Vitis vinifera variety that has played a dominant role in the development of Washington State’s wine industry, typifies the rise and fall of wine varieties in response to changing consumer tastes.
Riesling’s beginnings are unclear. Some wine historians believe that Riesling originated in Germany’s Mosel region and is a selection from a native German vine. The origin of the name Riesling is also murky. “Russ” means dark wood, which could describe the dark wood and deep grooves or “rissig” of the vine. Others think the name relates to the variety’s poor flowering propensity in cool weather, described by the German terms “verrieseln” or “durchriesein.”
The first documentation of the variety was in 1435 on an invoice that listed the sale of six vines to Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim. Thirty years later, the sale of 1,200 “Ruesseling” vines was recorded. By the end of the nineteenth century, Riesling was the “grape of Germany” and was grown in other countries.
But following World War II, the white wine fell out of favor, partly due to a production change to accommodate the sweeter preferences of American occupation troops in Germany, said Australian winemaker Wolf Blass during a presentation he gave at the 2002 Hyatt National Riesling Challenge titled: “Riesling, a Concise History.” Blass said that production methods changed from the dry style wine to a level of high residual sugar, the wines were not balanced, different grape varieties were used, high yields were produced with doubtful quality, and all that resulted in Riesling’s image becoming generic.
However, Riesling holds a special place in the development of Washington State’s wine industry. It was the variety that put the state on the national wine map when Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery’s 1972 Johannisberg Riesling won a blind tasting against 19 other Rieslings in a 1974 competition sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. The white grape, identified by the late Dr. Walter Clore, Washington State University horticulturist, as a cultivar well suited to Washington because it could survive the cold Pacific Northwest winters and the cool nights help maintain the fruit’s acidity levels, became the state’s number one planted grape in the early 1970s and 1980s. But a decade later, thousands of acres of Riesling were pulled out as wineries clamored for red varieties, and Chardonnay became the white wine of choice by consumers. In five years, growers shifted the percentage of white and red varietal acreage in the state, going from 80 percent white in 1991 to 66 percent in 1996.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and once again, Riesling, recognized as a versatile wine that pairs well with a variety of ethnic foods, is favored by consumers. Washington growers doubled the number of Riesling acres from 2002 to 2006, going from around 2,200 acres to 4,400 acres. In 2008, Riesling overtook Chardonnay production slightly, but in 2009, Chardonnay, with 33,400 tons crushed, was again on top but only slightly. Riesling will never command the highest grower prices, but it is a productive variety and a solid workhorse.
Washington is by no means a one-variety state. With diverse wine regions, the industry produces a range of world-class varietals, red and white. But the industry, with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates reported to be the world’s largest Riesling producer and Pacific Rim Winery in West Richland devoted almost exclusively to Riesling grapes, is taking advantage of the variety’s comeback.