When most people think of great Rieslings, their minds wander to Germany’s Mosel, Rheingau or Alsace wine regions. There’s a good reason for that: For centuries, German producers have been making some of the world’s finest white wines from Riesling grapes.
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But did you know that there are also some beautiful Rieslings being made in the United States? Cool-climate wine regions, such as those in New York, Michigan, Washington state and Oregon, are just right for growing Germany’s signature grape.
In Washington, the country’s largest producer of Riesling wines, the grape is grown mainly in the eastern part of the state, in the Columbia Valley appellation. Washington Rieslings are typically ripe and floral, with peachy notes and a touch of sweetness.
Oregon grows far less Riesling than its neighbor to the north — the variety was pushed out when Pinot Noir took center stage in the ’90s — but Riesling is making a comeback in Beaver State vineyards. Most of it is planted on the western side of the Cascades, where there’s plenty of rainfall. Compared with Washington Rieslings, Oregon’s tend to be higher in acidity.
Riesling grapes also thrive in the eastern United States, most notably in New York’s Finger Lakes appellation. That’s largely because the region has a truly cool climate (some would say freezing), and its eponymous lakes keep the vines from freezing in the winter, and prevent them from getting overheated in the summer. The resulting Rieslings have incredibly vibrant acidity that lends itself to both dry and sweet styles.
Although it’s lesser known than the Finger Lakes, northern Michigan is beginning to gather steam as a Riesling region. The best examples come from the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, which benefit from chilly temperatures and close proximity to Lake Michigan. Michigan Rieslings are clean and crisp, with plenty of acidity to balance any sweetness.
A perfect wine for fall
Although American Rieslings, especially the crisp, drier styles, are wonderful to drink in the warmer months, there’s something about them that’s perfect for fall. This is especially true at the dinner table.
According to restaurateur Amanda Danielson, co-founder of the annual City of Riesling festival in Traverse City, Mich., Riesling is a particularly good match for fall foods. “Riesling’s acidity has a cleansing effect and makes each bite taste like the first,” said Danielson, who owns Trattoria Stella and The Franklin restaurants in Michigan’s Riesling country. “The apple character in many Rieslings evokes memories of fall and, if accompanied by some residual sugar, can pair beautifully with multiple courses. Think butternut squash soup and apple salad with lardons. Many Rieslings will also pair nicely with roasted birds, from chicken to squab.”
With Thanksgiving just over the horizon, what better way to bring local flavor to the table? With styles from bone-dry to lusciously sweet, there’s a great American Riesling to pair with every dish on the table.
Here are six delicious Rieslings to try this fall:
Tierce 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($30): This wine is a collaboration between a trio of Finger Lakes winemakers: Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road Winery and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars. Made in a dry, austere style, the wine has aromas of petrol (a classic Riesling characteristic, and a positive one), citrus and orange blossom. It’s crisp and tangy, with lovely mineral notes.
Blustone Vineyards 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Riesling ($18): This wine is an excellent example of how pretty the Rieslings from Michigan can be. It has an enticing peachy aroma, with just a suggestion of sweetness on the palate. Tanginess, crisp acidity and mineral notes provide perfect counterpoints to the wine’s richer elements.
Chehalem 2012 Chehalem Mountains Riesling, Corral Creek Vineyards ($29): This wine from pioneering Oregon Pinot Noir producer Chehalem needs a little time in the bottle to come out of its shell, but fans of subtlety will enjoy it right this minute. With a slight petrol aroma, it’s crisp and quite dry, with notes of granny smith apples and stone fruits.
Gill’s Pier 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Semi-Dry Riesling ($16.95): Along with a pleasant sweetness and some peachy notes, this Michigan Riesling has plenty of bracing acidity and zesty lemon-lime flavors to balance its residual sugar. The wine finishes with a bright kiss of lime.
EFESTE 2012 Columbia Valley Evergreen Riesling ($20): This especially fine Washington state Riesling has aromas of apples and mineral, along with bright, tangy flavors of citrus fruits and green apples. The wine is crisp and dry, with a lemony finish.
Black Star Farms Arcturos 2012 Old Mission Peninsula Winter Harvest Riesling ($15/375 mL): Although this is not an ice wine — for that, regulations require that the grapes freeze on the vines before picking — this Michigan beauty has similarly luscious characteristics. The wine has wonderful aromas of apricots and honey, with flavors to match. It’s intensely sweet and viscous, yet expertly balanced.
Main photo: Rieslings from Michigan, Oregon and New York are excellent with fall foods. Credit: Tina Caputo