International Riesling Day: American style

Riesling vineyards
Vineyards of Dr Konstantin Frank in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Riesling’s homeland is, of course, Germany, where it all started. Likely a descendant of wild grape vines growing in the Rheingau region, Riesling was first noted in 1435 and recorded as ‘Riesslingen’ in a record of a sale of grape vines made on 13 March of that year. As a result, the date has been designated as the variety’s unofficial birthday and decreed International Riesling Day.

Riesling’s fortunes rose and fell throughout the centuries. It had its moments; in the 18th century, based on a decree made in the Mosel Valley, all grape vines were removed and replaced with Riesling. In the 19th century, its prominence rose to equal that of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

The First and Second World Wars devastated German vineyards and, along with them, the fortune of Riesling. It wasn’t until 500 years after Riesling’s ‘birthday’ that America’s Riesling revival began on the shores of New York’s Finger Lakes.

Born in the USA

There was a lot of Riesling being made in the US before Prohibition, having been brought over by German immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century. Like much of America’s pre-Prohibition wine history, the finer points have been lost.

In 1958 Dr Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD in growing wine grapes in cooler climates, planted Riesling on the western shore of New York’s Keuka Lake.

His vision would launch New York’s modern fine wine production, particularly the state’s Finger Lakes reputation for producing world-class Riesling.

Despite modern American Riesling’s connection to New York, Washington State produces and grows more Riesling than any other state in the nation. First planted in the Yakima Valley in the late 1960s, the state now has over 2,100ha of Riesling vines. It was spearheaded by Chateau Ste Michelle, the largest single Riesling producer in the world.

American Riesling founding father

Dr Konstantin Frank

Riesling in the Empire State

No region in the United States is as synonymous with Riesling as New York’s Finger Lakes. There are 405ha of Riesling vines planted in the Finger Lakes region, where more than 130 wineries produce 1,200,000 bottles a year. Riesling is the wine with which this region’s reputation has been built.

‘It could be argued that Riesling is an “underdog” variety,’ says Meaghan Frank, great-granddaughter of Konstantin Frank. ‘It is often misunderstood and not mainstream like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The history of the Finger Lakes also aligns with this idea. With very few exceptions, we are a region of small family farms with little outside investment.

‘Though our winemaking story begins in the mid-19th century,’ Frank continues, ‘we haven’t had the fast growth of other domestic regions. Because of this, we have been able to experiment freely. This is especially true when it comes to Riesling.

‘Today there is incredible experimentation with Finger Lakes producers seeking out different aspects and soil types in the vineyard and winemaking techniques like skin contact and extended lees ageing. That’s why in the Finger Lakes, few wineries do not produce a Riesling, and really only a few make just one style.’

Washington and the world’s Riesling giant

Riesling is also immensely important to Washington’s wine industry and the big label that got Washington wine off the ground: Chateau Ste Michelle.

‘Riesling put Chateau Ste Michelle on the map,’ says Katie Nelson, vice president of winemaking at the estate – the largest single Riesling producer in the world. ‘We’ve been passionate about Riesling for over 50 years and our goal is to showcase the quality and diversity that Riesling is capable of. We make up to nine different Rieslings from bone dry to decadently sweet to show off Riesling’s stylistic range. Our partnership with Ernst Loosen of Germany on Eroica has helped shape how we grow Riesling in Washington,’ she adds.

Ste Michelle is far from the…

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International Riesling Day: American style  
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