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July 30, 2022

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Heat-beating Washington State whites

WHY merely survive the heat of humidity of this Shanghai summer when you thrive by embracing one of the world’s classiest quenchers. This chapter of our series of summer wines returns us to the cooling ways of thirst-quenching and food-friendly white wines.

Riesling is one of the big three of noble white wine grape varieties along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling, despite its undisputed aristocratic character, has lagged behind the other two varieties in terms of popularity. There are good reasons why.

Riesling does not react well to large-scale cultivation and winemaking; instead, the best expressions of this variety are almost always hand-harvested, low-yield wines that are vilified with scrupulous care in small quantities. As a result, Rieslings are often more costly and harder to find. For these reasons, the variety will never be the crowd pleasers that Chardonnay and Sauvignon have become; but Riesling fans will undoubtedly remain fiercely loyal to their beloved grape.

The first documented mention of the variety is in a 1435 purchase document of a nobleman in a small Rhine River town bordering the modern-day wine region of Rheingau. DNA analysis suggests that the parents of modern-day Riesling are non-classified wild vines along with Traminer and the rather obscure Gouais Blanc variety. The lesser-known red-skin version of Riesling may also be an ancestor grape.

Today, nearly every wine region in Germany produces Riesling wines with the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau and Pfalz regions making many of the best expressions of the grape. Germany’s largest wine region the Rheinhessen also produces good examples. Across the Rhine River on the border with Germany, the French region of Alsace is another Riesling cultivation area. In contrast to their German neighbors, the majority of these wines are dry. Riesling also thrives in Austria where it’s the second most planted variety after the indigenous Gruner Veltliner.

Some of the most noteworthy New World Rieslings are from Australia and New Zealand. The best Aussie expressions of this grape come from the cool climate regions of Clare Valley and Eden Valley in South Australia. The Riesling variety is a relatively recent arrival to New Zealand but in limited production. It is thriving in the cool climate regions of Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago.

Chile and South African are two additional New World producers and are noted for making eminently drinkable, budget-worthy Rieslings. Many wine lovers including yours truly now believe that an increasing number of the best New World Rieslings are now being made in the Pacific Northwest.

Columbia Valley AVA

Riesling was first cultivated in Washington State in 1967 in the Yakima Valley and today the state boasts over 5,000 acres (2023.43 hectares) of Riesling vineyards, making it the largest Riesling producing region in America. Most of Washington State’s 20 AVAs, including Yakima Valley, are sub-appellations of the Columbia Valley, with only the Columbia Gorge and Puget Sound the outliers.

Every time I traverse the expansive plains, hills and mountains of the Columbia Valley I’m impressed by the sheer diversity of agriculture and natural abundance. This is truly a blessed land for growing everything from premium quality grapes to much sought-after apples, pears, carrots, onions and other fruits and vegetables.

One of the secrets behind the qualitative and quantitative success of the Washington States wine industry is the large pool of highly skilled and experienced farmers. Many are multi-generation agronomists able to combine an intimate knowledge of the terroir with skilled use of the latest equipment and technologies.

Established in 1984, the Columbia Valley AVA is big, I mean really big. The region covers nearly 11 million acres that comprise one third of Washington State’s landmass. Abundant sunshine and high daytime temperatures are offset by cool evenings that result in mean temperatures only slightly higher than Alsace or Germany, The diurnal temperature differences help preserve the crisp acids essential to quality Rieslings.

Napa Valley and a few other California areas may be longer storied and more recognized wine producing regions, but when it comes to Rieslings, Columbia Valley and its sub-AVAs are superior. The grape is one of the state’s big-five varieties along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah.

Riesling is among the most terrior-expressive varieties and the varied meso and micro climates of Columbia Valley result in a diverse number of Riesling styles, ranging from affable fruit-forward off-sweet wines to seriously dry, structured and intense wines. The former are quite appropriate for newer wine drinkers while the latter will impress even the most discerning wine experts.

Dry Columbia Valley Rieslings commonly offer a combination of citrus, apple, pear and mineral aromas and flavors while sweeter versions pack an added dose of honey. A quality found in all the wines is a solid acidic backbone, something that makes them among the New World’s most food-friendly wines.

In addition to being fine partners to a host of seafood and white meats preparations, Columbia Valley Rieslings are magical with Cantonese roasted goose and duck as well as crispy skin chicken. Off-sweet wines pair beautifully with many popular spicy Sichuan and Hunan dishes as well as our Shanghai treat stinky tofu.

Predictably dry and sunny weather and the skilled use of advanced irrigation by farmers means Columbia Valley vintages are consistently good to great. Remarkably, over the past two decades there hasn’t been one bad or even mediocre vintage.

Recommended Columbia Valley producers of Riesling with wines available in Shanghai include Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, Eroica, Charles Smith and Pacific Rim.

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