Searching for America’s Greatest Rieslings

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-10-2017

untitlehduntitlehduntitlehduntitlehd“What are we going to do about Riesling?”

Stu Smith, co-founder of the historic Smith-Madrone winery in Napa’s Spring Mountain Districtuntitlehd, is a lover and producer of Riesling, so it was a serious question. Some friends and I had coordinated a blind tasting of American Rieslings, and it just so happened that Stu was in town. The stars aligned, and we all tasted and discussed American Rieslings.

Since the late 1970s, Stu has been crafting Riesling from his Spring Mountain vineyards, a wine I love for its classic riffs on of Riesling’s greatest elements: freshness, purity of fruit, an intriguing mineral presence.

The idea for this tasting stems from a comment I made on Twitter about Smith-Madrone’s Riesling — I got on my soap box and declared it perhaps the greatest American Riesling. Aaron Menenberg, a Virginia-based wine-lover who recently started a blog called Good Vitis, chimed in. Other producers popped up, and I began to realize how many other American Rieslings could be considered “great.” It wasn’t long before we came up with a plan: gather dozens of high-quality American Rieslings and blind taste them.

Riesling still maintains a reputation among the larger public as an overly sweet, syrupy white wine, and that’s a shame. Wine consumers know not all Chardonnay is oaky and buttery, and we all know Merlot isn’t worthy of Sideways-style disdain. But Riesling still can’t seem to shake its reputation for being too sweet.

Riesling is perhaps the world’s greatest white wine grape. (I like to argue that Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc challenge it for supremacy, but this is a purely academic exercise.) Riesling is incredible.

But, like many great wine grapes, there is a lot of mediocre stuff. If you pick up a random Riesling at your local grocery store, the “Riesling is too sweet” critique would almost certainly be accurate. Stu mentioned a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s entry level Riesling, which he’d just purchased for $8. It was decent, he said, but admitted it was “too sweet.” I know the wine well (it comes from the world’s largest contiguous Riesling vineyards in Washington State), and it is indeed “too sweet.”

Nothing compares to the greatness of Rieslings from the best vineyards in Germany and Austria, but there are so many incredible Rieslings produced here in the U.S. The across the board quality was very high, with a few exceptional standouts. The wines were all over the dryness spectrum, from nearly bone dry to rich and honeyed with residual sugar. However, there were only perhaps one or two I would call “too sweet.” In the vast majority of these wines, the sugar is balanced with Riesling’s innately crisp acidity.

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Stu Smith, right, and the panel

Aaron and I gathered a few dozen Rieslings from producers we thought would deliver, and blind-tasted them (along with a few ringers from other countries). I fully admit some of America’s greatest Rieslings didn’t make it on this list: Stony Hill, Tatomer, countless others from Oregon, Washington, New York, Michigan, and on and on. I’m sure many people have dozens of suggestions of wines that should be on this list, and I’d likely agree with you on all of them. There are simply too many to taste through on a Sunday afternoon, and we’re only mortals, so we tasted 37 different wines. Spoiler: the Smith-Madrone did show wonderfully (it was one of the tasting panel’s highest rated wines), and Stu seemed rightly stoked about that. I will admit, I found a few other wines I liked even more. Blind tasting is always full of surprises.

I didn’t track down all the pricing information, but check out www.wine-searcher.com if you’re interested in finding some of these wines. I’ve rearranged my notes from the order in which they were tasted in order to group them by state.

California

2015 Chateau Montelena Riesling- California, North Coast, Potter Valley
Nose of lemon oil, white peach, honey, straw. Zesty, clean and brisk on the palate with plump texture but the wine is balanced nicely. Limes, peach and orange marmalade laced with minerals and chalk dust. Lovely. (90 points)

untitlehdIMG_20170604_1815213912014 Smith-Madrone Riesling- California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Aromas of lime, banana, yellow flowers, apricot, peach. So vibrant on the palate with racy acidity but plenty of texture and packed with fruit (peach, orange, apricot, lime) with lots of quinine, minerals, mountain stream and honeycomb. Complex and delicious, so suave. (91 points)

2015 Galerie Riesling Terracea- California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
Limes, peaches, baby’s breath on the nose. Zesty and crisp on the palate with peach nectar, white flowers, honey. Notes of almond and sea salt. Very pleasant, but having had the 2014 before and loved it, I was expecting just a bit more. (88 points)

New York

2015 Anthony Road Riesling Dry- New York, Finger Lakes
Smells like limes, yellow apples, oranges, chalky, a classic nose. Brisk and lip-smacking with lemon/lime, yellow plums, juicy fruit but such focus. Fresh minerals and chalk notes linger on the finish. 11.7% alcohol, 0.7% residual sugar. (88 points)

2015 Anthony Road Riesling Semi-Dry- New York, Finger Lakes
Aromas of saline, minerals and orange peel. Bold but zesty on the palate with yellow plums, spiced apple, notes of honey, ginger and almond. Packed with flavor, sweetness is evident but balanced nicely. 11.7% alcohol, 1.7% residual sugar. (88 points)

2015 Red Newt Cellars Riesling The Knoll Lahoma VineyardsNew York, Finger Lakes
Nose of limes, white flowers, nettle, peach nectar – great diversity of aromas. Zesty acid but a plump frame with peach nectar, honey, graham cracker. Tropical deliciousness but balanced, a lot going on in this wine. 13.2% alcohol, about 0.4% residual sugar. (88 points)

2013 Red Newt Cellars Riesling Tango Oaks- New York, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake
Nose of lemons, oranges, honey and white flowers. A bit thin but shows pleasant oranges, peach and honey tones. 10.6% alcohol, 0.5% residual sugar. (85 points)

2014 Red Newt Cellars Riesling The Big H Lahoma Vineyards- New York, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake
Nose shows kumquat, lime, perfume, honeysuckle. Creamy and rich but shows nice acidity. Sugar is evident, like the last sip of a cup of honeyed white tea, a nectary wine but delicious. 10.5% alcohol, 1.9% residual sugar. (87 points)

2014 Tierce Riesling Dry- New York, Finger Lakes
Pretty aromas of apricots, lemon curd, chalk, oil and almonds. Crisp and refreshing and bright with lots of mineral and quinine notes. Orange peels, lemon curd, minerals, bracing and zesty but packed with flavor. Very impressive. A collaboration between three winemakers (Peter Becraft of Anthony Road Wine Company, Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars and Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards) and three vineyards. (90 points)

2012 Fox Run Vineyards Riesling Lake Dana Vineyard- New York, Finger Lakes
Nose of honey, apricot, bruised apple and cinnamon. Alsatian richness in style with lots of honey, orange marmalade, some tennis ball, yellow flower and roasted peanut notes. Bold and delicious but shows impressive balance. (88 points)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Riesling Dry- New York, Finger Lakes
Aromas of sea salt, lime zest, yellow flowers, peaches. Fresh and bright and crisp with delightfully tingly acidity. Juicy peach and orange drizzled with lime and topped in sea salt, crust minerals and chalk dust. Love this stuff. 11.6% with less than 1% residual sugar. (90 points)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Riesling Lot 11 Hanging Delta Vineyard- New York, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake
Aromas of yellow apple, lemon, pineapple. Juicy, rich, sweet, tropical, honey-infused with graham cracker and oil notes, but it maintains freshness in spite of the richness. (87 points)

2014 Boundary Breaks Vineyard Riesling Dry No. 239- New York, Finger Lakes
Bright aromatic display of chalk, lime zest and lemon curd. Crisp and zesty with a salty, oceanic aesthetic. Limes, peach, chalk dust, pure and vibrant with a long, nervy finish. 11.6% alcohol, 0.9% residual sugar. (89 points)

2014 Boundary Breaks Vineyard Riesling No. 198 Reserve- New York, Finger Lakes
Nose of lime, lemon, floral perfume, lots of honey and deep floral tones. Precise on the palate, bold but balanced with vibrant acidity. Lemon/lime, pineapple, apricot, spiced apple. Balanced, rich, pure, delicious. 9% alcohol, about 7% residual sugar. (90 points)

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Magdalena Vineyard- New York, Finger Lakes
Nose of rich guava and pineapple and some chalk dusty. Sugar cane and sea salt mix nicely on the palate, rich but pretty, with lots of peach and guava nectar as well as cantaloupe and honey. 12.5% alcohol, 0.8% residual sugar. (88 points)

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Dry HJW Vineyard- New York, Finger Lakes
Nose shows lemon/lime, pineapple, oranges. Juicy and nectary but quite balanced with vibrant acidity. Guava, orange and apricot laced with honey and ginger. From a vineyard planted in 1977 on a plateau above Seneca Lake. (88 points)

Oregon

2015 Penner-Ash Riesling- Oregon, Willamette Valley
Deep nectar on the nose with honey and Teddy Graham cookies. Bold, plump texture but vibrant acidity. Honey, graham crackers and orange marmalade, lots of flavor but it’s tied together well. (88 points)

2015 Penner-Ash Riesling Old Vine Riesling Hyland Vineyard- Oregon, Willamette Valley, McMinnville
Aromas of lemon zest, lime peel, saline, tart apple. Fresh and lively with crisp acidity, lemon and cucumber water notes, some earthy spice notes as well. Refreshing and clean. (88 points)

2015 Chehalem Riesling Three Vineyard- Oregon, Willamette Valley
Nose shows lemons and limes with honeysuckle and chalk dust. Juicy palate, bold texture with honey, nuts, rich pineapple and peach but maintains crispness and vibrancy. Long finish with spiced apple notes. (87 points)

2014 Chehalem Riesling Wind Ridge- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Ribbon Ridge
Nose shows lemons, limes, Granny Smith apple and chalk dust. Focused, off-dry, rich texture but crisp acidity. Oranges and apricot laced with quinine and minerals. Bold stuff but a lot of fun. 12.6% alcohol, 1.2% residual sugar. (88 points)

2014 Chehalem Riesling Corral Creek- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Chehalem Mountains
Bright and floral aromas with baby’s breath and oranges and peaches. Zesty acid, pure and mineral-laden, juicy fruit but vibrant. Peaches and guava mixed with honey and nougat and hints of herbal spice. Lingering finish of mineral water and mountain streams. 12.5% alcohol, 1% residual sugar. (89 points)

2016 Trisaetum Riesling Wichmann Dundee Estate- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills
Rich aromas of honey, guava, canned peaches, clean laundry. Plump, rich and honeyed with guava and pineapple and whipped honey. Round and rich and sweet style, lacks a bit of verve but solid flavors. (85 points)

2016 Trisaetum Riesling Dry Wichmann Dundee Estate- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills
A spicy kick on the nose with lots of lemons, melon rind and oils. Bold texture but crisp and very bright, I liked this a lot better than the sweet version. Quinine, chalk dust, minerals, honey, ginger, all on top of bright citrus fruit. Beautiful. (90 points)

2016 Trisaetum Riesling Dry Coast Range Estate- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Yamhill-Carlton
This wine blew me away, and I had to revisit it several times just to check my stoke factor, but I still loved it. So much depth on the nose: oranges, peaches, tons of floral complexity, lemongrass. Rich texture on the palate but so bright and refreshing. Honeycomb, quinine, jasmine, floral spice, guava nectar, peach juice – incredible complexity. I was convinced this was an Austrian ringer. Wow. (94 points)

2016 Trisaetum Riesling Ribbon Ridge Estate- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Ribbon Ridge
Lots of depth on the nose with floral spice and cardamom. Bold texture, velvety, sugar cane, pineapple, baked apple, spiced tea. Like southern sweet tea in deliciousness, but not the freshest wine. (87 points)

Washington

2015 Charles & Charles Riesling Art Den Hoed Vineyard- Washington, Columbia Valley
Aromas of yellow apples, honey, lime, spiced tea. Creamy, waxy texture but bright acidity. Very pleasant yellow apple and lime fruit with a crusty mineral finish. 12% alcohol, 1.4% residual sugar. (88 points)

2015 Sleight of Hand The Magician Evergreen Vineyard- Washington, Columbia Valley
Very sea-infused nose with lots of tropical fruit (guava, pineapple). Plump but quite dry with juicy oranges and pineapple, some baked apple and honey. Rich style and packed flavors but stays fresh. (87 points)

2014 Lauren Ashton Cellars Riesling- Washington, Columbia Valley
Aromas of honey, orange, peach and guava nectar. Rich and honeyed on the palate with plump, waxy fruit (peaches, apricot, guava), with hints of nuts and smoke. Chunky style but tasty. (85 points)

2015 Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Riesling Eroica- Washington, Columbia Valley
On the nose, peaches, crushed sweet tarts and sea salt. Rich texture, sweetness balanced nicely with fresh acidity but this shows hedonistic notes too (honey, baked apple, spiced white tea). Lots going on. 12% alcohol, 1.2% residual sugar. (89 points)

2011 Rasa Vineyards Riesling The Lyricist- Washington, Columbia Valley
Nose of sweet oranges, yellow plums, honey and new tennis balls. Zesty and precise but also creamy and honeyed. Peaches, lime juice, laced with so many minerals. Complex, brisk, absolutely delicious, the depth and balance are so impressive. (92 points)

2013 Rasa Vineyards Riesling The Composer- Washington, Columbia Valley
New tennis ball smell on the nose, but also lots of honeysuckle, summer peaches, drizzled with lime. Bright and floral palate with mountain stream freshness and minerality. Oranges, limeade, honey, graham cracker. The complexity is absurd, but the balance is fantastic. Long, lingering, mineral-encrusted finish. Very impressive. (92 points)

2016 Nine Hats Riesling- Washington, Columbia Valley
Sweet flowers on the nose with orange blossom and sea salt. Bold honey and graham cracker on the palate but medium acidity keeps it fresh. Tastes like banana peel and crushed Sweet Tarts, but in the best way. For a $13 Riesling, this is really solid. 13.4% alcohol, 1.3% residual sugar. (87 points)

2015 Long Shadows Wineries Riesling Poet’s Leap- Washington, Columbia Valley
Never have I smelled a wine that smells more like banana Runts candy than this wine. Also some guava and honey. On the palate, this is fresh with lots of Sweet Tarts and, again, banana-flavored Runts candies. Floral, lots of spice, but so much sweet/tart candy notes. Fun, but not what I was expecting from this wine. I actually like the lesser “Nine Hats” wine just as much, but this was fun. 12.9% alcohol, 1.2% residual sugar. (87 points)

P.S.

One bottle of Gainey Riesling did not show properly at this tasting, but the other (notes below) showed beautifully. I accidentally left the Blakeslee Riesling at home the day of the tasting. But both of these producers sent wines for this tasting, so I wanted to include them. These were tasted sighted the next day.

2014 Blakeslee Vineyard Estate Riesling- Oregon, Willamette Valley, Eola – Amity Hills
Nose of peaches and papaya, lime, tennis balls, floral perfume. On the palate, this is pretty, vibrant and precise with light sweetness and crisp acid. White peaches, apricots, drizzled with limes, lots of floral tones, sea breeze, chalky minerals, just a touch of honey. Pretty, balanced, delish. (89 points)

2015 Gainey Riesling Limited Selection- California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Rich yellow color. Aromas of peach nectar, lime juice, also some lilies and honeysuckle with crushed sea shells. Bold texture on the palate but vibrant acidity, it tingles the palate, residual sugar balanced nicely. Pineapple and limes with honeycomb and an underlying sense of dusty minerals and pleasant salinity. Very curious how this would age. (90 points)

Comments (8)

  1. Don’t think there was a mention of “petrol” in the whole article –thank you. Few questions–are the ratings a composite of the tasting group or the author’s alone? How did the foreign ringers do? Is the residual sugar level a good measure of the sense of sweetness?

    One comment–I think the public’s problem with Riesling is not that many are “too sweet”, it is that for most of us there is no way to look at the bottle and find out which are sweet–some bottles might mention “off dry” which usually means sweet. Most give no clue. If residual sugar content is a good measure of the sweetness and all wineries placed that number in a prominent place on the bottle, my guess is that sales would increase.

  2. Bruce,

    Thanks for the comment. The notes/scores are mine alone – too chaotic at the end of four hours to total everyone’s. The ringers were fun – the Mosel was so Mosel it stood out and the 08 FX Pichler Berg I brought was on point, but I actually thought that a wine tasted earlier (the Trisateum Coastal) was the Pichler, until I tasted the Pichler, then it became clear. I agree with you about consumer understanding of sweetness in Riesling. Lots of producers put “dry” on the label, and a lot more include a spectrum of sweetness and note their wine as being somewhere on this spectrum – this is good stuff. US Riesling producers can’t expect consumers to know exactly what they’re going to get unless they tell them. Cheers man!

  3. I am a grizzled veteran of over 50 weinfests along the Mosel. Been a lover of Riesling for 40 years. I have found that the Texas High Plains AVA has produced excellent Riesling, on par with the Ausleses and Spatleses that I’m most familiar with.

    I prefer a Riesling that’s a bit sweeter, but it must have acidity to go with it…that’s what makes it for me.

    For Bruce, German wine lists (or labels) will give you the info you need: “trocken” means dry, “halb trocken” means semisweet, and “fruchitige” or “liebliche” are sweet.

  4. Isaac,

    I took a viticulture course several years back. I would ask presenters why Mosel wines were such a small part of the American market, considering our general preference for sweeter wine.

    The answer I heard most often was “German wine is too difficult to explain.” I replied, “give me ten minutes and that problem would be solved.”

    The teacher took me up on the offer, and a few weeks later, I gave a presentation on Mosel wine. IIRC, I included kabinetts, spatlese and auslese. It was the first presentation on German wine in the 20+ years the class had been offered.

    It’s so easy, my 6 YO grandson can pronounce “hochgewächs” like a native…lol. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I discovered the website of my favorite winery in Germany, a small winery in Briedel that’s been family owned for over 500 years. I’d visit every 4-6 weeks, and I learned about wine from a master. On occasion, he’d break out a vintage of Eiswein so small, the labels were typed out by hand.

    My Father’s Day treat to myself is a bottle of 2009 Merler Königslay-Terrassen Beerenauslese.

    Thanks for the article, Isaac. I’ll be up in Spokane next month on vacation, hopefully I’ll get a chance to try the Washington wines on your list.

  5. Rich, thanks for the comment. I’m a huge Mosel fan myself, and my wife and I have traveled and tasted a lot there and we love it. I haven’t had a Rieslings from Texas High Plains – I’ve mostly tasted reds – but I’m willing to explore and give them a shot. There are plenty of places around the Great Lakes that produce really solid Riesling, but couldn’t gather them up for this tasting. It was as comprehensive as we could fit into an afternoon, but a drop in the bucket of high quality American Riesling for sure. Cheers!

  6. So happy to see Boundary Breaks made the list for the Finger Lakes. Was so impressed when we stumbled upon them on our last wine tasting tour. Looking forward to trying some new rieslings from this list!

  7. Jen, I had never tasted them before but was really impressed. I’d much prefer to taste through just a few wines from that producer and see how they evolve, because so many of these wines deserved more time. I’d love to visit them on an FLX trip. Cheers!

  8. Rich: Wish it was as simple as you have found it. This morning I went into Whole Foods (soon to be Amazon) and read the labels on the 10 German Rieslings they stocked. Looking for the four descriptors you mention, I found only one with the term “trocken”. None with the other three terms. One had a line graph with the sweetness indicated. The other eight had nothing. That has been typical of my experience over the last 30 years.

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