Swirls: tasting my way through the ‘Riesling Rendezvous’

I tasted dozens of rieslings last night on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington outside Seattle.  The ocRiesling 1casion was the opening of the third annual  Riesling Rendezvous. The event has drawn almost 70 riesling producers from the United States and around the world, along with others in the wine business and media and the public, for two and a half days of tasting and discussion of their wines and exploration of riesling in general. (The wines of a Canadian producer, Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, are being poured in the photo above).

After last night’s tasting, on the bus back to our hotel, I struck up a conversation with Martin Sinkoff, director of marketing for fine wine at Frederick Wildman and Sons, the New York importer. He quickly identified a central paradox of riesling.

“Riesling is widely considered the greatest white grape,” he said. “It’s like pinot noir in its ability to express terroir. But it has trouble finding an audience.” That’s because riesling suffers from an identity crisis, a victim of its great diversity, a wine that, unlike chardonnay, for example, isn’t easy for the casual wine drinker to get his hands around. “Only riesling of the great varieties has this problem,” Sinkoff continued. “That’s because it’s made in many different places in many different styles.”

Those styles range from bone dry to very sweet with everything in between. Further complicating matters is the fact that there is a great deal of variation in what is considered dry or semi-dry or sweet riesling. This is a problem in marketing and selling the wines and forces one to learn the language of the label, at the very least, and often take a gamble on what’s in the bottle. And that’s a tall order for many Americans, who don’t like to take chances on wine, even if the potential rewards are great.

But I will submit that this is also the inherent richness of riesling. For me, the diversity and the intellectual challenges associated with it are the very things that make the grape so interesting and appealing and are what drew me to this conference. With that in mind, look for a series of reflections and observations this week and beyond based on my travels through the world of riesling.

(A note about my trip: I was one of a number of journalists invited and sponsored by Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is hosting Riesling Rendezvous along with Germany’s Dr. Loosen Estate. There was no discussion or agreement about coverage of specific wines or topics.)

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