Great Expectations: NW Riesling’s Elusive Quest for Glory

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Maybe it’s the fact that the Seahawks bombed out of the playoffs that turned my mind toward Mariners spring training. Whatever the reason, as I lay awake one recent night thinking about this week’s post it occurred to me that Riesling is the Jarred Kelenic of wine grapes. And who is Jarred Kelenic you ask? He’s an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, a former first round draft pick, and was once considered the best prospect in a farm system loaded with them. A so-called “five tool” player whose future seemed guaranteed.

Five tool baseball players are above average in hitting, hitting for power, base running, fielding and throwing. They are quite rare. So far at least it hasn’t worked out that way for Kelenic, who has bounced back and forth between the Mariners and their Triple A farm club in Tacoma more times than Riesling has been touted as the next great grape.

As with Kelenic, Riesling has often been touted as a five tool grape. It can be made dry, off–dry, sweet, ultra sweet and sparkling. It can accompany a huge number of popular foods, or be tucked in throughout a meal from opening bubbly on through decadent dessert. It’s always been Germany’s go-to wine, and closer to home it’s been among the very first varieties to be planted in the Pacific Northwest, where it still thrives, and does especially well in the Willamette Valley.

Even so, neither Kelenic nor Riesling seem able to live up to these high expectations. Are those expectations unrealistic? Spring training opens soon and we shall see how the Mariners outfield shakes out. Meanwhile, I’m still betting on Riesling to some day soon have its moment of glory.

Why does the world’s arguably greatest and most versatile white wine grape remain so stubbornly in the shadows of lesser viniferas? I posed the question to three of my favorite Riesling producers – Janie Heuck (Brooks) Matt Berson (Love & Squalor) and James Frey (Trisaetum).

Heuck points a finger at the poorly-made, cheap Rieslings that a lot of Boomers (myself included) first trained their palates on. At Brooks up to two dozen different Rieslings are produced in a single vintage in a wide range of styles and vineyard sources. The winery goes to many Riesling-oriented events around the country, and the Brooks tasting room offers visitors many options to explore and learn about the many faces of the grape. Nonetheless Heuck acknowledges that “it still seems to be in the world of converting one person at a time. I do think the younger generations love it and are open to the experience of something new. Many are unaware of the sweet reputation of Riesling.”

James Frey originally built a reputation on Trisaetum’s Rieslings, and they still make up a significant share of his overall production. “I think there’s a few things at play here,” he notes. “First of all, we still find some consumers associating Riesling with sweet German wines in blue bottles from their youth, and therefore discounting the wines from the outset. With that said, over time that preconceived notion of Riesling is diminishing, so I think there’s more to why some consumers have a hard time getting behind Riesling.

“Most wines people drink are relatively dry (less than 1 gram of residual sugar) and relatively soft in regards to acidity (more than 3.60 pH). When consumers try a wine that falls outside those parameters (like Riesling), it may be unfamiliar to them and therefore not what they expected.”

PG:  What in your view makes a great Riesling?

JF:  “Great bottles of Riesling (which make it arguably the world’s greatest white wine grape) deftly balance any residual sweetness with the wine’s acidity (which is often below a pH of 3.0).  When the residual sugar (RS) and acid is in perfect harmony, the wines are absolutely magical… regardless of the style. These in-balance wines are wonderfully expressive, energetic, complex and make you want to keep returning your glass.

“When the RS and acid is out-of-balance the consumer will often find the wine to be unpleasant. The wine is either too austere and bracing in the case of out-of-balance acidity, or too cloying sweet in the case of out-of-balance RS. In Rieslings that aren’t well-constructed for my palate (because every palate is different), I tend to agree with consumers who find them less appealing than other white wines.”

PG:  Rieslings, as you have shown, come in a full range of styles, from sparkling to ultra-sweet. But that can cause consumer confusion.

JF:  “One of Riesling’s greatest strengths – versatility – is also one of its challenges. Rieslings do come in many styles and if the bottle does not articulate well what the consumer is getting (dry, medium dry, medium sweet, etc.) the mismatch between what is expected and what is delivered leaves an unfavorable impression and turns folks off from further explorations of the grape. I personally love all styles of Riesling, but all the components of the wine have to be in balance and it certainly helps when I know what to expect in terms of style.”

PG:  Since you make dry, slightly sweet and very sweet styles, how do you educate tasting room visitors to the differences?

JF:  “In terms of what we do at Trisaetum, it’s actually pretty simple. We tell them if the wine is dry or not, and then let them taste it. If the wine (regardless of style) balances the RS and acidity well, and demonstrates the complexity, energy and excitement of a good Riesling, then we hear ‘I had no idea’. Creating converts to the grape is a lot of fun. Our Riesling-only club is one of the largest clubs at Trisaetum, and of all the clubs here it has the highest retention rate by far.”


Love & Squalor is the Portland Wine Company’s Riesling brand. Owner/Winemaker Matt Berson acknowledges that “Riesling is overlooked all the time. We practically have to trick people into trying it when they come into the tasting room. It’s the Ornette Coleman of varietals. Everyone agrees he’s a genius, only a few people get what he’s doing, and when push comes to shove they’re all going to put on Miles’ Kind Of Blue instead.”

PG:  Love the music analogy! Why do you think Riesling is relegated to also-ran status?

MB:  “I think the whole thing is the sugar. Americans love sugar in everything. Hell, it’s even in our sandwich bread. But either they tasted grandma’s sweet plonky Riesling at some point and it tasted bad, or some ‘expert’ pontificated that sweet wines were not sophisticated and now wine drinkers even two generations past turn their noses up when they see a hock-shaped bottle. Ironic seeing as Coke is so popular. Jack Daniel’s is so popular.

“I also think this plays to a kind of machismo around wine. Rieslings, even dry ones, are delicate, ethereal, heady, bright. Add to that the sugar content and it all seems light and [too feminine] to some. And this reaction isn’t limited to male drinkers, I see this kind of repulsion in women too. Even so, sweet reds like Meiomi and the Prisoner are hugely popular and somehow very macho.”

PG:  What do you do at your winery to evangelize, promote, explain and encourage the consumption of Riesling?

MB:  “I heard Ernie Loosen say that Riesling is the margarita of the wine world. Totally makes sense – the play of the sweetness and acidity is key to the balance of the drink, and the minerality of the salt keeps you coming back.

“What we do here is always pour Riesling on every flight in the tasting room, and at every event we feature it. While we pour it we talk about the history of Riesling in the world and in our region. We talk about how even when fermented dry, the grape has a lovely fruity quality to it that sometimes is interpreted as sweetness even when the actual RS is negligible. Additionally, we support our fellow Riesling producers when we can, produce and participate in Riesling events and generally stand firm behind our decision to be a Riesling house.”

PG:  I am under no illusions that broad consumer appeal awaits the high-end Rieslings featured here. For most consumers even today Riesling serves principally as a sweet starter wine. The pleasures of dry Rieslings and single vineyard Rieslings; the remarkable ability for Riesling to age over decades; its subtlety and elegance at moderate alcohol levels are assets not to be found in the $8 versions. I urge you to take a break from your favorite white wines, whatever they may be, and give any of these excellent wines a try. 

Portland Wine Company – Love & Squalor

As the website notes “Portland Wine Company is a full service winery and tasting room with indoor and outdoor seating and event space in SE Portland. We’ve been making fretted-over, hand-crafted, small batch, un-manipulated, nuanced Love & Squalor wines since 2006. All our wines are blends. Blending is like putting together a dinner for friends – pairing ingredients, choosing spices and herbs, squeezing a lemon on top… compose a plate and let the flavors mingle.”

Love & Squalor Rieslings are blended from six sites, four of them planted before 1976, two of them planted in 1971. “Go old vine or go home when it comes to Riesling” is the motto.

For a deeper dive into the history and philosophy of Matt Berson and Angela Reat (who describes herself as the “Squalor” in Love & Squalor) visit here.

To purchase these wines visit here.

Love & Squalor 2018 Dry Riesling

If you like your Riesling bone dry and sappy with lip-smacking juiciness look no further than this new release from Matt Berson at Portland Wine Company. Grapefruit, Meyer lemon, tangerine and more are in the mix. The tension is electric, the definition and focus are pinpoint and spot on. There is nothing missing here for this particular style. 270 cases; 12%; $20 (Willamette Valley)

Love & Squalor 2016 Reserve Riesling

Formerly labeled as Antsy Pants this reserve is a selection of old vine sources fermented in stainless barrels with wild yeasts that give it a distinct tang. It’s finished dry, with a lush mineral-driven texture. Leesy, long and layered, this is from one of a handful of Oregon wineries pushing Riesling into exciting new directions. As winemaker Matt Berson writes “the 2016 vintage was warm and relatively dry, resulting in bold and rich fruit and well established acid – like turning the bass and the treble both up to 11.” 75 cases; 13.3%; $38 (Willamette Valley) 

Trisaetum

Trisaetum’s James Frey farms three different estate vineyards – Coast Range in Yamhill-Carlton AVA; Wichmann Dundee in the Dundee Hills AVA; and Ribbon Ridge in the Ribbon Ridge AVA adjacent to the winery. A self-trained winemaker, he pulls two different Riesling expressions from each – one dry and one with a moderate percentage of residual sugar. There are also very limited and highly recommended dry and off-dry reserve bottlings and occasionally a late harvest wine – all outstanding, beautifully balanced and well-differentiated one from another.

Find all Trisaetum Rieslings here.

Trisaetum 2021 Coast Range Estate Dry Riesling

This estate vineyard backs up against the Coast Range and is now almost 20 years old. This is a solid, straight-ahead dry style with a pleasing tang but no sourness to the acidity. It curls around the palate and brings light hints of honeysuckle and lemon candy as it fades through a long finish.  334 cases; 13.1%; $35 (Yamhill-Carlton District)

Trisaetum 2021 Wichmann Dundee Dry Riesling

This has a luscious lemon drop character that juices up the palate and sets up the appetite for fresh-shucked oysters, calamari, clams, even lobster. Tasted solo the length and texture are apparent, with seashell highlights reminiscent of a ripe Muscadet. Tart fruit flavors of citrus and green apple are crisply defined and clean through the finish. 294 cases; 13%; $35 (Dundee Hills)

Trisaetum 2021 Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling

Compact, dense and detailed, this will need time and a bit of warmth to unpack all its flavors. Serve it too cold and a lot of subtle aromatics and other details are concealed. Warm it up in your glass and a sniff or two yields suggestions of almonds, lime, wet stone, green banana… It fleshes out across the palate adding notes of ginger around a core of crisp apple and Asian pear. Enjoy this now and on through the next decade or longer. 315 cases; 13%; $35 (Ribbon Ridge) 

Trisaetum 2021 Estates Reserve Dry Riesling

This barrel-select reserve is comprised of one third from each the three estate vineyards. It has more concentration and overall power than any of the single vineyard bottlings, which all have their own precision and detail. It’s drier than any but the Ribbon Ridge, yet fills out nicely with ripe flavors of citrus, apple, melon and pear. There’s a pleasing spicy frame as the wine trails on through a long finish. 98 cases; 13.1%; $45 (Willamette Valley)

These next are indicated as “medium dry” on their back labels – plenty of acid, not too sweet, rounder and more fruity. I believe these will age best with possibly two or three decades of life ahead.

Trisaetum 2021 Coast Range Estate Riesling

This is a lovely, lighter style, with a touch of sweetness but a long way from dessert sweetness. It’s round and fruity with a nice mix of baked apple and pear, with a hint of almond paste. It’s full across the palate, lingering through a most pleasing finish. It shows how a bit of residual sugar can add more flavor interest when compared to a totally dry version of the same wine. 269 cases; 11.3%; $35 (Yamhill-Carlton District)

Trisaetum 2021 Wichmann Dundee Riesling

This strikes a good balance, as James has explained, between the sugar and the acids. The tart citrus flavors buoy the sweeter tree fruits, and the synergy across the palate is expansive. Lemon drops, tangerine, sweet orange and papaya are in play, with lively tension and excellent length. Though not bone dry, it’s perfectly suited for a main course of poultry or fish. 206 cases; 11%; $35 (Dundee Hills)

Trisaetum 2021 Ribbon Ridge Estate Riesling

As with the dry bottling of the Ribbon Ridge, this is replete with hints and notes of ginger, stone, almond butter and more. The residual sugar lowers the alcohol and ups the roundness across the palate. The tree fruits are emphasized, a mix of ripe citrus, peach and apricot. What is most impressive is that the acids keep everything tight and focused on through a long finish. Drink now and over the next 10-15 years. 206 cases; 11.1%; $35 (Ribbon Ridge)

Trisaetum 2021 Estates Reserve Riesling

This reserve includes 50% of the Coast Range and 25% each of Trisaetum’s other two estate vineyards. It’s rich and loaded with very ripe fruit flavors, a stunning mix of citrus, peach, apricot, apricot and cantaloup. As with all the Trisaetum Rieslings the overall balance propels the wine through a long and clean finish. Young as it is the depth and detail are already in place. This is a wine I’d buy in quantity and taste a fresh bottle every 3 or 4 years. 96 cases; 11%; $45 (Willamette Valley)

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt is the best-known, full-time independent journalist covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. Over the past 35 years, he has written thousands of wine articles and reviews for national and international newspapers, magazines and trade journals as well as an award-winning website. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times. He is the author of two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’, published by the University of California Press. From 1998 untl 2022 Gregutt was the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, and a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel. Prior to his rather surprising emergence as a wine whisperer he was on the original staff of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM, ahead of meandering media career that included producer/writer positions at KCTS, KOMO, Watts-Silverstein and EPG Digital Media. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg, Washington. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5. Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine

7 COMMENTS

  1. When I arrived in Germany in the middle of the Berlin Wall/Cuban Missile Crisis, I don’t think I had ever ordered a bottle of wine: any wine. But here I was in Europe and in Europe they drank wine. So I went to the Lebensmittelladen nearest my Kaserne in the Frankfurt suburb of Bonames and hit the wine section.

    I didn’t know what I was buying, of course, so I bought two bottles, by price and the look of the label. One was called Hochheimer Domdechany 1961 and turned out to be the driest, sourest liquid I’ve ever tasted. The other was called Erbacher Marcobrunn 1959, and tasted like something the Gods sipped alongside their ambrosia.

    They were both made from pure Riesling grapes. (Together they cost about 12 Deutschmarks; about $3.00). I never recovered. I’ve tasted some marvelous wines since; dry rieslings, hard as they are to find in the US, still top my list.

    • Roger, I’m dazzled that you can recall wines that you drank so long ago with such detail. Wish I had that same ability! I did drink the occasional off-dry German wine in college (mostly Liebfraumilch) which isn’t Riesling but rather a generic blend. Dry Rieslings are actually not uncommon anymore, at least in Oregon where I believe the grape really performs well. The wines referenced above would be a good place to start.

  2. Ornette Coleman was only a four-tool player (alto & tenor saxes, trumpet, violin) but made up for it with his speed on bass.

  3. If you think Riesling’s sweetness bothers average American wine drinkers, watch them gag on a dessert wine that would be highly appreciated anywhere else in the world.

  4. From a consumer perspective, one of the best things about German Riesling is their classification system. Qualitätswein / Qualitätswein mit Prädikat etc. Perhaps this augers against those who have invested their time to develop a deep knowledge of region / vineyard, but I sure like to be able to pick up a bottle and have a very good idea of what it is and how it should be priced. I have wished many times that this systematic approach was used in the US, and elsewhere.

  5. David – the German system is far too complex for most wine drinkers. But there is a simple graphic that may be used on back labels that gives a good indication of relative sweetness. The abv (finished alcohol) also listed on labels is another clue as to sweetness.

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