Riesling is an old varietal. Riesling parents are not all known but one of them seem to be Gouais Blanc (Heunisch Weiss in Germany); Gouais is also in the lineage of Chardonnay, Semillon and Gamay – which makes Gouais a bit of the Casanova of grapes with “decedents” everywhere (80 varieties have been linked to Gouais Blanc through DNA profiling – see the excellent research from José Vouillamoz on this). Goauis Blanc was a favorite of northern Europe in the middle ages and was rumored to have been brought to Europe by the Huns – which is why it is called Heunish in Germany (see, they weren’t all that bad, at least they were carrying Riesling’s parent with them!). The other parents of Riesling are unknown but they were probably local grapes (Vitis Sylvestris?), perhaps hybridized with Traminer which had been spread out by the Romans. (See the below chart.)
Riesling is first mentioned in literature in the 15th century (1435) on a transactional document from the Rheingau showing the sale of grapevines. That would make Riesling at least 600 years old with roots in Roman time (Traminer parent) and Huns time (Gouais Blanc parent) – a very nice pedigree. It is clear that as early as the beginning of the 9th century, grapes were planted in the Rheingau and the Mosel; it is also likely that grapes were actually planted around Trier as early as the 3rd century A.D (Treveri was a large Roman city where the citizens probably grew grapes in the Mosel). One has to wait until the late 18th century to start seeing a push in Germany to rip off inferior varieties and plant Riesling instead (the world should be glad I was not in charge then since I believe that every variety is inferior to Riesling).
In the USA, the first Riesling vines hitting the west coast were probably planted in the 1850’s – they were recorded as “Johannisberg Riesling” and were brought by German immigrants. Emil Dresel and Jacob Gunlach planted Rhine farm in Sonoma in 1858. Also, Agoston Haraszthy brought many Riesling cuttings in 1861. Riesling flourished in California reaching 10% of total acreage in 1921 but prohibition put a halt to that expansion and Riesling acreage felt from 2,000 acres in 1921 to 282 acres in 1962. In the 70’s Riesling was again on the rise and peaked in 1976 when it was the fourth largest crop in California (crazy to imagine today – no?) before falling off again to pre-1921 acreage levels by 2003. By then, another State had captured the attention of wine consumers for Riesling wines – Washington State. In Washington, Riesling found a home like nowhere else in the country growing uninterrupted from the early 80’s to now. Washington is the number one producer of Riesling in the new world churning more Riesling than California or SE Australia. Did you know that Washington produces now as much Riesling as Alsace in France?
At Pacific Rim we’ve pushed the envelope a bit further planting four Riesling clones all from Germany: Clone 90, 198, 110 and 239. We have all four planted in the cooler Yakima Valley and within the Horse Heaven Hills appellation at our Wallula Vineyard. Clone 198, 110 and 239 are old German clones that were identified in the 50’s at the University of Gesenheim, while clone 90 is from Pfalz that was isolated in Neustadt. Clone 110 (or FPS 09) is known to be very fruity and Muscaty, somewhat atypical in Germany. Clone 198 (or FPS 17) is a low yield version ideal for high quality wines, a very elegant clone. Clone 239 (pr FPS 23) is a high terpene producer, very fragrant – we love this clone; however, we find it a wee bit too susceptible to Botrytis. Clone 90 (or FPS 12) is an aromatic clone, very cold hardy and disease resistant (though I never found it more resistant than the other vis a vis Botrytis).