Most people think of Riesling as a lovely, little, summer-patio sipping wine, but not this wine guy. I like Riesling year-round and especially around the holidays.

Riesling is a great white-wine option for Thanksgiving and also an excellent wine for our Northwest fare, oysters, Dungeness crab and Asian-fusion cuisine. 

A sweeter style is a good option for spicy Thai food because the sweetness calms down the heat.

Don’t think of Riesling as just another sweet white, though — it is far from it. A few producers that I would recommend are Efeste, Charles Smith’s “Kung Fu Girl,” Airfield Estates and Trust Cellars.

 

The introduction

A quick history of Riesling in Washington state. Riesling was one of the first grape varieties grown in Washington: Plantings date back to 1967, when it was first grown in Yakima Valley. 

In 1974, Chateau Ste. Michelle won a blind tasting of 19 Rieslings that was put on by the L.A. Times — this put Washington Riesling on the map. I remember back then when my mother used to buy that wine on sale for three bottles for $10; it was one of her favorites and my introduction to wine.

The U.S. government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which oversees wine-labeling laws, phased out the use of the term “Johannisberg Riesling” on U.S. wines, which now must be called either “Riesling” or “white Riesling” instead. The term is no longer in use as of Jan. 1, 2006, though there might still be a few bottles around on wine lists or in wine shops. 

Johannisberg is the name of a wine region in Germany, and Schloss Johannisberg is one of its most famous producers. So, now, when you see “Johannisberg” on a bottle, it must refer to the region in Germany, the German producer or both. This is similar to wine being labeled “Champagne” from the United States when it is actually sparkling wine. It can’t be called Champagne unless it is from the Champagne region in France. 

In the early 1980s, Langguth, a prestigious German company, invested millions of dollars planting vineyards and building a winery near Mattawa, Wash., dedicated to Riesling. The winery is no longer in existence, but it shows the early interest in the grape varietal.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Loosen of Germany and Chateau Ste Michelle began their collaboration on Riesling with Eroica and raised the bar on Rieslings from this state. 

Others have followed, including Armin Diehl, who makes Poet’s Leap for Longshadows. Also, Boony Doon from California has a huge presence in Washington state with its Pacific Rim Label. 

 

A very popular grape

There are approximately 6,300 acres planted in Riesling today, making it the fourth-most planted grape in Washington state behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. 

Washington is the largest Riesling producing region in America. Columbia Valley’s high summer temperatures — combined with mean temperatures only slightly higher than Germany or Alsace, France — provide the opportunity for full-flavored, yet elegant wines. 

Cool evenings preserve the crisp acids essential to quality Riesling. Harvest period temperatures are significantly lower than in other New World growing areas. 

The diversity of Riesling sites in the Columbia Valley, coupled with the climate, allows for a full range of styles, from bone-dry to botrytis-affected dessert wines. The typical fruit flavors of a Washington Riesling run from apples, apricots, tangerines, peaches and pears. They tend to be floral on the nose and have a great minerality — think wet stone. 

The majority tends to be off-dry, though there are some great, sweeter versions out there. One way to tell the sweetness of a Riesling from Washington is to look at the alcohol on the label: The lower the alcohol percentage, the sweeter the wine. 

Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more Riesling than any winery in the entire world. Its 2010 Dry Riesling was recently named No. 2 on Wine Enthusiasts Top 100 Value Wines in the World for 2012 

JEFFREY DORGAN, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2009 Sommelier of the Year, is the wine director at Sullivan’s in Downtown Seattle. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.