Riesling was one of the first varieties planted in the State of Washington; most likely because before climate change, Washington had a combination of short growing seasons, early fall frosts and harsh vine killing winters. The first big event for Washington Riesling was in 1972 when Chateau Saint Michelle won best Riesling at the LA Times annual wine competition for their “Johannisberg Riesling.” This achievement created a springboard allowing Washington Riesling to be considered a credible American wine. This Johannisberg Riesling style was in fact the first style Washington State made and still represents the lion share of Washington’s production. “JR,” as we use to call them, are 17 to 25 g/L residual sugar Rieslings. The name “Johannisberg” was abandoned after the 2006 harvest due to a request from the European Union; they demanded the United States stop using the name to avoid confusion with a Riesling producing German village in the Rheingau. Most brands just dropped the Johannisberg name and just call their wine “Riesling,” we add a “J” in front of our Johannisberg style in memory of the JR days and to distinguish it from all the other Rieslings we make.
For many years J Riesling was the only style made in Washington until a few wineries in the 80’s started to make Late Harvest Rieslings. Late harvests were (and still are) picked a few weeks after the J Riesling grapes and usually have the same alcohol (about 12%) but more sugar – closer to 40 g/L RS. Those two styles JR and LH were the staples of the Washington Riesling business apart from a few mavericks like Pacific Rim that has been producing a Dry Riesling since 1992. In 2000, a new style came about with Eroica, the partnership between Chateau Saint Michelle (the largest Riesling producer in the world) and Doctor Loosen of the Mosel. Eroica introduced a wine slightly dryer than a JR style at about 17 g/L (it is now produced at a lower 12 g/L RS) – Feinherb style as German wine lovers would call it. The success of Eroica helped launch an alternative style at a higher price point and many have followed. I call this Riesling the premium, off-dry Washington style. Beyond introducing a third style of Washington Riesling in the marketplace, Eroica also helped liberate Washington out of its JR/LH dichotomy and showed that other styles could be commercially viable.
Today the Washington Riesling styles can be sliced as followed:
– Dry Rieslings that are below 8 g/L such as our Classic Dry Riesling. Wines such as our Solstice (below 4g/L RS) stay a niche production for engaged Riesling consumers looking for uber trocken Rieslings.
– Premium, off-dry Rieslings between 12 and 15 g/L RS where many of the higher-end styles are focused. Our Wallula Riesling is moving into this category.
– J Riesling styles between 17 and 25 g/L RS – the historic style dominates Riesling sales. This is where our Classic J Riesling resides.
– Late harvest style between 40 and 50 g/L RS – the other historic style of Washington. We do not make any Riesling in this category.
– Our Sweet Riesling which with 75 g/L RS and 8.5% ABV – this is a newer style (our first vintage was 2006) and is similar to a Spatlese from Germany.
– Botrytized and ice wine (including our Vin de Glaciere) Riesling which starts at 160 g/L and go up to 450 g/L.
Today Washington has about 6,000 acres of Riesling producing about 39,000 tons. Riesling represents one third of all the whites produced in the State. Price-wise a basic ton of Riesling (i.e. not a top site like Wallula or Solstice) will cost you about $750 today and Riesling is the cheapest white grape you could buy in Washington (a good $200/ton below Chardonnay). Looking backwards to 2006, Washington’s Riesling production is up 64% while the State as a whole is up 109% showing that Riesling is losing market share. Interestingly, pricing in 2006 for Riesling was close to what it is today at $716. Washington is one of the largest producers of Riesling in the world, well into the top 10 regions for the variety based on planted acreage. The first three largest regions are German (Pfalz, Mosel and Rheinhessen), followed by Alsace then South Australia, Ukraine, the Rheingau and Washington. Wurttemberg and Austria wrap up the top 10. In fact, Riesling is the only variety that Washington produces more of than California – it is truly a specialty of the State and we are proud to be one of the top producers of Washington Riesling.