Riesling Revolution 

Giving the misunderstood grape another try

So you say you want a revolution? Drink riesling.

Laurie Pearman

So you say you want a revolution? Drink riesling.

Near the registers at the Boise Co-op Wine Shop, a display boasts several types of dry rose. The color palette ranges from light coral to deep salmon, and customers scoop up bottles by the armload. Not so long ago, most wines this hue--blush or white zinfandel--were confined to the bottom shelves at gas stations. Now, demand for rose is through the roof.

"If you spoke to sommeliers about roses a decade ago, the conversation would have focused on the frustration of persuading an unwilling public to give them a try," wrote Eric Asimov in a July 18 New York Times article. "Now, the public in the summer wants little else."

So what changed? American wine drinkers shed their preconceptions about sweet pink wine and began to embrace the wide world of drier, more complex roses. A similar movement is changing the image of another wine scoffed at by American consumers: riesling.

"It's one of the world's greatest grapes. It's just a beautiful noble variety and it certainly deserves to be treated with the same respect that cabernet and chardonnay and pinot noir get. But for whatever reason--because of its tendency to yield large quantities--American producers going way back to the '60s and '70s were producing it very inexpensively and not in very interesting styles," explained Greg Koenig, winemaker at Koenig Distillery and Winery. "So now it's kind of associated with a maximum $10 a bottle--preferably $6-$7 a bottle--simple, not very interesting, but slightly sweet wine. But it can make tremendous wines of depth and character."

Koenig Winery, which was crowned USA Wine Producer of the Year at the 2013 China Wine and Spirits Awards, produced three rieslings under its own label last year, in addition to providing custom crush work and bottling for three other vineyards: Bitner, Williamson and 3 Horse Ranch. The styles ranged from dry to off-dry, late-harvest to syrupy ice wine and won numerous awards--and clocked in at around 20 percent residual sugar.

Idaho, it turns out, has an ideal climate for growing riesling.

"This is an awesome grape for Idaho," said Leslie Preston, owner of Coiled Wines, which recently released its second vintage of dry riesling. "I think, in particular, we have really well-draining soils here and I think that contributes a lot to the fruit characters that we get in our rieslings. I think pretty consistently in Idaho you get more of the riper characteristics of rieslings--stone fruit, nectarine, apricot and peach. If grown in a much cooler climate, it would be more of an austere style, so a little more steely, a little more minerally."

Last year's high temperatures demanded Preston harvest her grapes (from a single block at Skyline Vineyards) four weeks earlier than the previous year. This year's vintage rings in at 0.7 percent residual sugar to balance the wine's acidity, but she's interested in playing between 0.4 and 0.6 percent in the future.

"I'm going for a drier style of riesling because I feel like that's what most people around here are interested in," said Preston. "I feel like the vast majority of resistance to the grape is people expect it to be really, really sweet. To me, the main message that I want to get out there to people is riesling can be as dry as any other wine; it's a grape and the sweetness level is a stylistic choice that the winemaker makes."

Preston is hoping to spread the word about her dry riesling--and Idaho rieslings, in general--by starting a Riesling Revolution.

"Basically the idea is just trying to make riesling seem a little edgier, appeal to a younger crowd," said Preston. "I feel like if we can reach a younger crowd and get them excited about riesling, that it's going to catch on."

A similar effort has already taken shape across the country, where hundreds of restaurants, wine bars and retailers are participating in the Summer of Riesling, which requires them to feature three to four rieslings by the glass (two from Germany) all summer long.

Idaho's Riesling Revolution doesn't yet go beyond T-shirts and postcards, which feature a hand thrust triumphantly skyward, gripping a long-necked bottle of riesling. But Preston has been getting her 2012 riesling onto by-the-glass lists at restaurants like Mai Thai and Flatbread Neapolitan Pizzeria.

"For people who really love wine, especially sommeliers, riesling is often their favorite grape because it is so food-versatile ... yet so many people have tried to get the word out there and yet the general public is just like, 'I don't like riesling,'" said Preston.

According to Divit Cardoza at the Co-op Wine Shop (full disclosure: Cardoza is my boyfriend's father), rieslings pair well with food because they have a naturally high acidity and span the spectrum from sweet to dry.

"The sweeter-style rieslings tend to go better, depending on the sweetness, with spicier foods like Thai food, because if you've got that hot spiciness, a little bit of sweetness in the wine acts as a compliment. Where, if you have a wine that's bracingly dry and you have some real hot, spicy food it's like gasoline on the fire," said Cardoza, sporting a Riesling Revolution T-shirt. "But not everybody wants to have spicy foods and people want to drink rieslings with other things ... so these drier-style rieslings are coming up."

Cardoza said that more winemakers are gravitating toward drier-style rieslings to accommodate the growing consumer demand.

"There's been a huge revolutionary change, even in Germany, in making more wines that are what they call 'trocken' [dry] or 'halbtrocken' [semi-dry]," said Cardoza.

But for those perplexed by multisyllabic German classifications or unsure how to tell if a riesling is sweet or dry, the International Riesling Foundation has developed a new tool.

"There's been some movement toward [something] they call the Riesling scale. It's just a little pointer saying, 'Is this sweet?' 'Is it dry?' and trying to get that on as many labels as possible," explained Mike McClure, winemaker at Indian Creek Winery in Kuna, which put the scale on past vintages of its dry riesling.

Coiled also plans to feature the riesling scale on its label.

"For your average wine consumer, they don't know where to look on the bottle to understand what they're going to get. So that scale is a way of simplifying it," said Preston.

But scales and labels aside, Preston says the most effective way to make a riesling convert is to convince someone to taste it.

"It's like we've got this great treasure in our backyard and people are saying, 'Oh, well, I don't like that,'" said Preston. "I'm like, 'Well try it again.'"

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