Riesling

Summer has arrived in the United States, which means thousands of bottles of Chardonnay are being uncorked or unscrewed across America.

But Chardonnay’s near stranglehold on the American palate may finally be facing its first serious challenge in years from a fellow European ancestor: Riesling.

The grape which London wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd says accounts for 20 percent of total plantings in Germany, has already made strong inroads among the vineyards of the New World like Australia and the United States.

Now Riesling is getting a grip on a share of the drinking market that Chardonnay used to own, receiving rave reviews from the wine critics and favorable comparisons against one of the most widely planted white grapes in the world.

Wine writer Natalie MacLean has likened Chardonnay to a dance partner who steps all over your feet, while praising Riesling for its subtlety and finesse with food or on its own.

“Over-oaked, over-alcohol, overripe fruit flavors in Chardonnay can just clobber food,” MacLean said.

The author of “Red, White and Drunk All Over”, who also has her own Web site said Riesling also comes in a far wider styling — from bone dry to icewine.

“It has an incredible density of flavors without the palate-whacking high alcohol of so many other wines,” she said.

And Americans appear to be catching on to Riesling’s qualities and value for money, she said.

Data from Scantrak, a service of The Nielsen Company that follows U.S. grocery store sales of wine, backs her up.

Scantrak found a 24 percent increase in the sale of all Rieslings in the 52 weeks ending May 5. Of the $144.2 million Americans spent on the wine, import share grew by almost 44 percent, while the U.S. share was up 11 percent.

One U.S. producer of Riesling is winning awards, plaudits from the critics and market share.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, located in Washington’s Columbia Valley, the largest U.S. producer managed to squeeze out 713,000 cases of eight different Rieslings in 2006. Both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines have bestowed awards on Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Rieslings and the winery is playing host to an international tasting of Rieslings June 24-26.

“Washington State…has long been the dominant American Riesling producer and Chateau Ste. Michelle its flagship brand,” notes Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

But Trezise says other Washington state producers are now challenging it, including: Columbia Crest, Covey run, Hogue and Pacific Rim.

Pacific Rim is devoting an entire winery in Washington’s Yakima Valley to Riesling. Its winemaker, Nicolas Quille, is determined to “plant the flag for Riesling” in North America.

Born in Lyon, France, Quille is using grapes from Washington vineyards, but also has contracted with a German producer of Mosel to blend 20 percent of those grapes with 80 percent of the domestic harvest. The result is a dry Riesling that retails for about $10 a bottle.

Most Rieslings can be found in the $8-to-$20 range; while ice wine, also known as Eiswein, from Germany, Austria or Canada can easily run to more than $50 for a half-bottle.

Traditionally, it is made from a small harvest of grapes left on the vines to freeze. The result is an intensity of flavors that, if well-made, is sweet, but not cloying.

Pacific Rim has replaced nature with technology to freeze its grapes. It will be up to drinkers to decide if Pacific Rim’s Vin de Glacier, which retails for about $16 for a full bottle, can match the golden nectar of Eiswein.

So if you are planning a spicy barbeque or have Mexican or Asian cuisine on the menu, MacLean recommends trying out a Riesling.

“It’s always a safe bet,” she said.

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