A Geography of North American Riesling
In cool climates all over the world, from Bernkastel
to Bio Bio, there is no better lens to place than riesling.
Its broad range of flavors and jittery, hair-trigger transparency
serve as a barometer for climatic variation and
regional typicity like few other varieties on earth.
Dry riesling has emerged as the bellwether white in
North America's northernmost vineyards. Here's a look
at where the dry style performs best.
by Patrick J. Comiskey
Oregon's wine industry began with riesling; Richard Sommer planted the variety in
the Umpqua Valley in the 1960s. By the '70s it had migrated north to the Willamette
Valley, where most of the state's riesling now grows, performing best in volcanic
soils like those found in the Eola Hills. Chris Williams of Brooks Winery says, "In volcanic
soils the vines don't over-vigor; plus, the ocean breezes from the Van Duzer
corridor cool things off at night, maintaining acidity."
The long, cool growing season in the Willamette Valley runs from late April
through late October or November, frequently resulting in lean, high-toned wines
with herbal accents and Granny Smith apple and citrus flavors–though in 2008 and
2009, with their luxuriously warm autumns, a high-toned peach accent was not uncommon.
Despite racy acidity, Oregon rieslings aren't known for their minerality. The exceptions
are Chehalem Mountain wines , where the soils, especially on the north
side of the range, are comparable to Columbia Valley's wind-blown loess.
Top examples: Chehalem, Brooks, Tunkalilla, Penner Ash.
The country's largest regional producer at 1.5 million cases a year, Washington
State originally planted riesling for its winter hardiness.
In Washington's best vineyards, riesling has a long growing season, starting
late and finishing late, with vines devoting energy to physiological ripening as the
nights grow cooler in September. Subregions cool enough to exploit this climatic
scenario include the West Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan and the high country northwest
of the Wahluke Slope, where Evergreen Vineyard is located, one of the state's
most respected riesling sites.
The best Washington rieslings have bright fruit tones, a flavor set that hints at
peach but keeps itself planted in citrus elements–lime, grapefruit, lemon pith. The
wines frequently boast great concentration, purity and focus. Texturally they often
impart a talc-like mineral delineation, which some consider a mark of the windblown
loess soils common to the Columbia Valley.
Top examples: Eroica, Poet's Leap, Pacific Rim, Kung Fu Girl.
California's riesling producers gamely flout the conventional wisdomthat the state
is too warm for such a cool weather grape.
Tell that to Stony Hill, which has been producing a steely Napa Valley iteration
since 1957. Or try convincing Stu and Charles Smith of Smith-Madrone, who have
been making riesling at 1,750 feet since 1977. The state continues to produce its
share of inexpensive, semi-sweet bottlings, the fruit for which comes largely from
But California's best riesling may come from Anderson Valley in Mendocino
County. The cool coastal valley has one of the longest growing seasons in California,
with autumn nights plunging 40 degrees from daytime temperatures. "I think
one of the overriding things is the amount of acid we end up with in these grapes
in the middle of October," says Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards. "Riesling is a
much longer season up here than pinot noir. It's the last white variety to come in."
California rieslings are fruit-forward, many possessing peach and apricot flavors
with accents of jasmine and ginger not uncommon. In the Anderson Valley,
green apple seems to be more prevalent. "Sometimes you get a little lemon curd,
or citrus, and sometimes, a hint of charcuterie," explains Bennett. "But the wines
are mostly about balance and minerality."
Top examples: Navarro, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Lazy Creek.
British Columbia (4)
At nearly 50 degrees latitude, the Okanagan Valley is the most northerly site for
riesling on this continent, and quite possibly the most extreme. The vineyards,
mostly planted on alluvial fans, benefit from the mitigating breezes off the 85-milelong
Where Washington boasts long summer days, the Okanagan Valley days are
longer still, with a comparable cool autumn ripening period, allowing for extremely
late harvests. This results in some of the most thrillingly racy rieslings in the world,
as electric and nervy as the wines of Australia's Clare and Eden Valleys.
David Paterson, winemaker at Tantalus Winery, attributes the abundant
acidity in BC rieslings partly to the widespread use of clone 21B, from the Rheingau.
He says it has an uncanny ability to retain acid even at high sugar and physiological
ripeness levels–the effect is bone dry, even when the wine is not. "The
same levels would taste candied in other clones," he says.
Top examples: Tantalus, Mission Hill, Nk'Mip, Sumac Ridge.
Finger Lakes (5)
Fifty years ago, Konstantin Frank planted the first riesling
vines in New York State's Finger Lakes region,
quickly establishing it as a viable place for vinifera
whites. Now the region makes more than 100,000
cases in an array of styles and sweetness levels.
Most of the region's riesling vineyards take advantage
of a lake view, situated on or near Seneca,
Cayuga or Keuka Lake. The lakes provide a moderating
influence on temperatures, cooling vineyards on warm
summer days and insulating the vines from extreme
cold in winter.
The soils are a mélange of glacial till, varied
enough, according to Anna Katherine Mansfield, a
professor of enology at Cornell, that "individual site
trumps 'lake' conditions."
Nevertheless, some similarities exist. Generally,
these are not fruity wines; rather, they tend to offer subtle
notes of lime, pomelo and passionfruit in an austere
frame. The texture is the lasting impression, a notable
slatey minerality that provides a firm tang to the finish.
Top examples: Konstantin Frank, Lamoreaux
Landing, Hermann Wiemer, Sheldrake Point,
Ontario's most important riesling sites are on the Niagara Peninsula, where the large, ancient Lake Iroquois left a bathtub ring
of limestone and shale formed during the Ice Age, now called the Niagara Escarpment.
"There are caves and springs popping out of the foot of the Escarpment everywhere," says Len Penachetti, owner of Cave
Spring Cellars. "Our vineyards are always exposed to hydraulic movement through the soils, filtered through limestone and
other sedimentary layers."
The vines here experience a long dormancy, and are slow to rouse in spring. But summers are warm, days are long, and
harvests (for the table wines) are usually complete by mid-October.
The resulting style is something Matt Speck, of Henry of Pelham Vineyards, likens to a middleweight Mosel. "We don't
have the intensity or weight of Alsace," he says, "but feel we're somewhere unique in the middle. The only place similar to
us is the Finger Lakes."
Cool-weather citrus flavors predominate, from grapefruit to lemon–lime. Penachetti detects a hint of honeycomb and
beeswax in fruit that has had a chance to hang. And, he says, there's a mineral fingerprint: "Our wines come out tasting like
a quarry full of minerals."
Top examples: Henry of Pelham, Cave Spring Cellars, Inniskillin, Tawse.
Michigan's finest riesling vineyards are in the northern tip of themitten in the Leelanau and OldMission peninsulas, in close proximity
to the cool waters of Lake Michigan. This is where Edward O'Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse first established German
riesling cuttings in Traverse City in 1974.
Michigan is the northernmost riesling source east of the Rockies, at about 45 degrees latitude.Much of it is planted on glacial
till with large amounts of sand (in the Leelanau Peninsula, small pockets of the Niagara Escarpment–the same formation
found in Ontario–are exposed). The season is very late: Bud break in themiddle ofMay is common, though by August theMichigan
vineyards have caught up to the continent, and harvest occurs in mid-October.
The glacial mélange makes for a range of flavors: mineral notes and high-toned citrus notes in more impoverished sites,
broader tones of apple and pear where it's sandier.
Top examples: Chateau Grand Traverse, Left Foot Charley, Black Star Farms.