Riesling, the wine that put Washington State on the map, has come full circle.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, based in Woodinville, Washington, gained national recognition when its 1972 Johannisburg Riesling won a blind tasting of 19 Rieslings in a competition sponsored by the Los Angeles Times in 1974.

The variety, which would become the workhorse for Washington, was widely planted and was the number-one variety in the state in the early 1980s—in part because the variety is well suited to Washington’s cool nights and survives its cold winters. But before the decade ended, Riesling became a tough sell, and many consumers viewed it as a low-priced, sweet wine, said Dr. Wade Wolfe, who has worked in Washington’s wine industry for nearly 30 years as a viticultural consultant, winery manager, and, more recently, as co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery.

"In the 1990s, everyone got on the red bandwagon, and a thousand acres of Riesling in the state were pulled out," he noted. "The whites, like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gewürztraminer, fell out of favor in deference to the dry reds, except for Chardonnay, which was the fastest-growing white in the 1990s. Then we began cycling through the reds, first Merlot, then Cabernet Sauvignon."

By 1996, average grower returns in Washington for Chardonnay and Riesling were going opposite directions. Chardonnay prices were reported at $1,240 per ton compared with $478 per ton for Riesling, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Growers began shifting the percentage of white and red variety acreage in the state, going from 80 percent white in 1991 to 66 –percent by 1996.

Overdid it

In the next statewide acreage survey taken in 2002, red varieties had overtaken white, with the total red variety acreage pegged at 16,000 acres and white varieties at 12,000 acres. Riesling had fallen to the number-four variety, making up only about 8 percent of total acreage, far behind Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, which each comprised 21 to 23 percent of total acreage.

Riesling acreage stabilized, and demand began to pick up in the mid-1990s, while Wolfe was general manager at Hogue Cellars in Prosser. However, low Riesling prices discouraged growers. "The prices were so low—around $450 per ton—that we couldn’t entice the growers to grow it."

But, in the last decade, prices moved upward as demand for the variety strengthened. The average cash market price for Riesling in 2006, as reported by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, was $713 per ton. Today, wineries are taking all they can find of the productive variety which can be cropped around seven tons per acre. Some of the larger U.S. wineries are importing Riesling to blend with U.S. grapes to make up for the shortfall.

Some attribute Riesling’s return to Washington’s largest wine producer Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which in the late 1990s began partnering with German winemaker Ernst Loosen to make a high-end wine called Eroica Riesling.

The Loosen family estate has produced Riesling in Germany’s Mosel region for more than 200 years. Loosen has preached the gospel of Riesling for more than 20 years and worked to bring the wines back to the center stage of noble varieties. He was named 2005 "Man of the Year" by Decanter magazine for his perseverance in promoting and producing great –Riesling wines.

Regional style

Ste. Michelle, one of the first to plant Riesling in the state, has championed the variety for more than 40 years and is reported to be the world’s largest Riesling producer, bottling up to 600,000 cases yearly. The winery offers up to seven different Riesling styles to showcase the variety’s versatility and regional styles within Washington’s Columbia Valley, which produces more Riesling than any other American region, according to a Ste. Michelle news release.