Washington's rising riesling reputation

Some years ago, I sat in the office of Allen Shoup, who was then CEO of Stimson Lane (now Ste. Michelle Estates). Shoup was on a roll, excitedly describing a "riesling renaissance" that he was attempting to promote.

I thought he was nuts. At the time, you couldn't give the stuff away. Riesling vineyards were being ripped out across Washington as fast as you could say "merlot." The idea of a riesling renaissance, fueled by the creation of the upscale bottling Shoup envisioned, seemed pie-in-the-sky at best. It was, in fact, brilliant.

Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle's Eroica riesling, a spectacular wine made in collaboration with Dr. Ernst Loosen of Germany, has become the gold standard not just for Washington but for the country. All together, the Ste. Michelle family of brands is the biggest riesling producer in the U.S. — (last year's production topped 478,000 cases of Washington riesling alone, including 18,000 cases of Eroica).

In fact, riesling has become so successful and demand so strong, that there is now a shortage of riesling grapes, with wineries scrambling to buy more and growers frantically planting it!

In 2000, Shoup left Stimson Lane and set about creating a consortium of boutique wineries, each with a focus on a single varietal or blend, made under the supervision of a world-class, globally recognized winemaker/adviser. Called Long Shadows, the project has been moving steadily forward ever since, with wines being made in a leased Walla Walla facility under the supervision of Gilles Nicault.

"I want to create seven or eight Leonetti's," Shoup explained recently, "free-standing, four- or five-thousand-case wineries that everyone agrees are meeting world standards." Ambitious? Certainly. Risky? No doubt. Good for Washington? In my opinion, Washington can only benefit from such prestigious collaborations with credentialed, international superstars — as long as the wines deliver the goods.

The first of the Long Shadows wines has just been released and, happily, it does. Fittingly, it is a lovely riesling named Poet's Leap, a perfect embodiment of the riesling renaissance that is now a fait accompli. Around 800 cases were made, using grapes from some of this state's oldest riesling vines, under the guidance of Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel in Germany's Nahe River valley.

Elegant and refined, the 2003 Poet's Leap Riesling ($22) offers mixed citrus scents, a clean, fresh and lively mouthfeel built upon a generous core of melon, yellow plum and sweet citrus fruits. It carries enough acid to keep its off-dry sweetness food friendly, especially when served with Asian dishes. Like Eroica and a handful of others, it demonstrates the almost-limitless potential of Washington riesling. You can order Poet's Leap by the glass at the Waterfront Seafood Grill at Pier 70.

More pinot gris of note

Pinot gris continues to be the wine of choice for those who like a chilled, hearty white with their grilled salmon or summer salads. Fruit-driven rather than overly oaky, here are excellent versions that have crossed my palate since I wrote last month's column. The 2003 Maryhill "Willamette Valley" ($10) bottling enters with unusual scents of salt and diesel then gracefully opens in a textured, lacy, minerally food wine. It's one of the better buys around.

King Estate is Oregon's biggest and best-known producer of pinot gris, and the 2002 bottling is especially good, with lively, spicy citrus peel highlights and fleshy, apple/pear fruit. The wine has what the Europeans call "grip," which is to say it is firm, confident and somewhat muscular, without any rough edges, bitterness or harsh flavors. This King Estate 2002 pinot gris ($14) may be their best ever.

In a different style, but still spicy and brisk, is Rex Hill's 2002 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris ($14, specially priced this month). Subtle layers suggest honey, green apple and mineral, all laced together, and this is one white wine that could benefit from decanting. Recommended for those who value elegance over sheer power.

The lowdown on Lodi wines

Winemakers from the Lodi appellation in California, rather than moaning about the "stuck in Lodi again" tagline that they have been inadvertently branded with, are taking a very clever and pro-active approach to marketing their wines. Some of the winery associations in Washington might want to borrow a page or two from their notebook.

Recently, the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission assembled a panel of sommeliers and wine educators to taste and evaluate 59 wines from Lodi growers. The "hook" here is that all came from Mediterranean varietals, and many included old vines and/or wines rarely seen in this country. From the 59, a dozen were chosen that the panelists felt were the best. They included both white and red wines, from wineries both large and small. Prices ranged from $12 to $22.

Several of these were genuine standouts and are of particular interest to anyone interested in grapes that bring new and different flavors to the table. To inquire about buying any of these wines call: 209-367-4727; e-mail: lwwc@lodi wine.com; or visit www.lodiwine.com

Here are some of my personal favorites:

Renwood 2002 Viognier "Select Series" ($12). This is a crisper, lighter, less alcoholic wine than Renwood's previous vintages.

Fenestra 2002 Alvarelhao "Silvaspoons Vineyard" ($18). I loved this Portuguese-style red, with its leathery, animal flavors and highlights of nutmeg and barnyard. Perfect for smoked meats.

Van Ruiten Vineyards 2002 Petite Sirah ($18). A ripe, bold wine with tangy berry flavors and loads of vanilla and toasted coconut.

Mettler 2001 Petite Sirah ($22). One of the best petite sirahs I've ever tasted, this wine is deep, dark, smoky and smooth, loaded with herbs and wild blackberries.

Hurrah for syrah from Amavi

Amavi Cellars is one of a crowded field of Walla Walla newcomers, but for lovers of Washington syrah, they should go to the head of the glass. Amavi's just-released second vintage, the 2002 Walla Walla Valley Syrah ($25), is a thrilling wine, firm and supple with a core of plush, dark fruit. It is 100 percent syrah and almost entirely from the Pepper Bridge vineyard, with the rest from Seven Hills.

The winemaker is Jean-Francois Pellet, who also makes the Pepper Bridge wines, which sell for considerably higher prices. Here you will find plenty of new oak, adding layers of smoke and char, with the grapes providing extra nuances of smoked meats, licorice and mineral. Complex and beautifully structured, this is a remarkably good syrah for the price.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines."

His column appears weekly in the Wine section.

He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.