Once upon a time in Sonoma County, such was the good repute of Riesling that it could launch a winery’s fortune. Today this noble white grape is quite the rarity in Sonoma County, all but forgotten among the varietal whites after the decades-long ascendency of Chardonnay. Riesling is now often misunderstood, yet offers a beguiling reward for those who find it.
Riesling Key Facts
The Riesling vine was first mentioned in 1435 in Germany, which is its assumed birthplace, and where it attained its greatest fame. The offspring of a workhorse Medieval grape, Gouais Blanc (also a parent of Chardonnay), along with an unknown grape with partial Traminer parentage, Riesling is hardy and cold-tolerant, and forms small, round green berries that turn a pretty gold color, often with “freckles,” when ripe.
Riesling is rarely blended. In the Alsace region of France, near the border with the German Rhineland, some vintners make an aromatic white blend with Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc, but otherwise Riesling has been labeled as a varietal wine, i.e., made from a single variety of grape, by exacting German vintners for centuries.
Riesling is grown in all of Germany’s important wine regions, including the Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, and Baden, as well as throughout Austria. But not all of Riesling’s historically important regions are in cool Central Europe. In the 1840s, immigrant winemakers planted Riesling in South Australia, where regions like Clare Valley and Eden Valley are still renowned for their distinctive, exhilarating styles of dry Riesling.
Riesling in Sonoma County
Among Sonoma County’s white cultivars, Riesling takes eighth place behind seven other grapes, holding down just about 55 vineyard acres out of the county’s 19,800 acres of white grapes.
It was not always so. Riesling vines were imported to Sonoma County as early as the 1840s, along with many other European wine grape cultivars. Unlike many of those, Riesling immediately took top billing at wine shows, as vintners and wine judges who understood it to be among the world’s so-called “noble” wines enthusiastically approved of the California versions.
Riesling made by the historic Italian Swiss Colony in northern Sonoma County, as noted by wine historian Charles Sullivan (“Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista,” 2013), was on the wine list of every San Francisco hotel in 1934 following the repeal of Prohibition, alongside the winery’s Zinfandel and “Tipo” Chianti-style wine.
When Frank Bartholomew asked a prominent UC Davis professor of viticulture what to plant at Buena Vista Winery in the 1940s, he was advised: Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. And in 1949, at the grand opening of the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, Texas, as author Stuart Pigott points out in his book The Riesling Story, 3,000 guests including Errol Flynn and Ginger Rogers were offered Riesling from Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove Winery, along with Rhineland bottles that were priced higher than contemporary red wines from Chateau Margaux and other great estates of Bordeaux.
In 1975, a late-harvested 1974 Riesling from a winery then new on the scene, Chateau St. Jean, created a sensation when it won a gold medal and put the winery on the map. “I remember it sold for the ungodly price of $6.25, and people were aghast,” remembers St. Jean’s then-winemaker, the legendary Richard Arrowood. “A distributor raised the price to $15 a bottle and sold every single bottle.”
Then, a curious thing happened to this once-popular varietal: Riesling sank into the doldrums, some say because of changing tastes, some say because of a profusion of inexpensive Riesling that flooded the market with poor quality. As earlier accolades attest, however, and given its success in similar regions in South Australia, the conventional wisdom that it’s the “wrong variety, wrong place,” may not hold up.
Often tossed in the bag of “aromatic whites” that also contains Gewürztraminer and Muscat Blanc, Riesling is indeed aromatic, tagged with descriptors ranging from stone fruit to slate stone, honeysuckle to cinnamon, and lime to lanolin. However, Riesling’s more persistent acidity retention and inexplicably more assertive yet more refined palate presence contribute to its ability to age much longer, as long as the best Cabernet Sauvignons, in some cases.
Sweet or dry? That is the vexing question of Riesling, and not easily answered. While many people still assume that Riesling is always a sweet wine, Riesling is made, and has been made throughout the centuries, in a variety of styles ranging from very sweet to very “dry,” containing little to no residual sugar.
Unfortunately, many wine lovers have been misinformed to associate sweet wines, and by association, Riesling, with a lack of sophistication in recent decades — which is not only a somewhat unsophisticated point of view (think of the great sweet wines of Sauternes, which are extolled at the same time that very dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs made from the same grape are in high demand), but, meanwhile, the rest of the Riesling world has moved on and is generally drinking a dry style of Riesling.
Winemaker Richard Arrowood, mentioned above, is still a proponent of Sonoma County’s late-harvest style of Riesling: “When you get up into the late harvest style — tockenbeerenauslese, etc,” says Arrowood, “a lot of those wines could easily be mistaken for a wine of German heritage.”
But as wine writer John Winthrop Haeger explains in his exhaustive account of the rise, fall, and rise again of dry Riesling in his 2016 book “Riesling Rediscovered,” both climate change and changing generations of winemakers have made full-flavored, dry (or “trocken” in German) Riesling the rule in Europe as well as Australia.
The key point is this: when Riesling can ripen its full suite of flavors while retaining high, but not searingly high levels of acidity (such was the case in the cold 19th century), the wine can be enjoyed with less or no sugar needed to balance the level of acidity.
Sonoma County Riesling Producers:
In other varietal spotlights, we explore Sonoma County’s “key regions” for a grape variety here. Since Riesling vineyards and producers are few and far between, however, we’ll focus more on the producers than the region
Wineries: Now better known for their Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Chateau St. Jean has kept faithful to the Riesling grown in their Belle Terre vineyard in southern Alexander Valley that jump-started their fame in 1975. Generally, both a late-harvest and an increasingly dry, sometimes Clare Valley-style Riesling have been made. Imagery Estate grows Riesling on their Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak vineyard, and eclectic Scribe Winery makes estate Riesling on property that was Riesling turf in the 19th century.
The famed Russian River Valley Pinot Noir region is also suited for cool-climate-loving Riesling, but Pinot gets a better price. Rodney Strong has made an estate Riesling; Healdsburg’s Riesling-inspired Cartograph Wines offers a fine Anderson Valley version, while Gustafson’s Heritage Tree Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Riesling will challenge your notions of Riesling that shares an estate with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Until recently, cult Pinot Noir and Syrah house Radio-Coteau made a little Riesling from a plot in the Platt vineyard near the town of Bodega, but it’s been since budded over to more lucrative Pinot Noir. Time will tell whether the Sonoma Coast, which is usually steadily cool but may not offer enough brief, warm peaks in sunlight that Riesling seems to thrive on, could be a great Riesling region.
Wines from this new, windy southern Sonoma County AVA have been labeled as Sonoma Coast up to 2018. Good news: Azari Vineyards labeled their 100 percent Riesling as “Luma” white until recently, but the 2015 is proudly labeled as varietal.
Riesling reading list:
The Riesling Story: Best White Wine on Earth. Stuart Pigott, 2014.
Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. John Winthrop Haeger, 2016.
International Riesling Foundation, drinkriesling.com
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.