When my parents were originally choosing varieties to plant back in 1972, the decisions weren’t quite as terroir-driven as they are today. For one thing, our family was one of the early pioneers of grape-growing at high elevations in California (meaning there wasn’t much data to “taste” for the region).
Another aspect was that my parents were planting varieties they felt they could sell to other wineries. Thus the big names were planted—Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, etc.—but I almost have to think there was some divine intervention in choosing to plant Riesling. Moderately popular at the time, it didn’t have a particularly great selling price (as grapes), and it is susceptible to bunch rots. But my parents saw a value in this relatively cool-climate variety being planted in our high-elevation location.
And plant Riesling they did, with 6.3 acres of vines.
Although no one truly knows where the name “Riesling” came from, it is widely presumed that the grape variety originated in the valleys along the Rhine River in Germany. Its parentage is a natural cross between the old (popular in the middle ages) variety of Gousais Blanc and the combination of Traminer and some wild vine. The first documented listing of the variety “Riesling” was from the year 1435 when a selection of Riesling cuttings were sold in Rüsselsheim (near today’s Rheingau).
The interesting success of Riesling in Germany seems to be tied to the monks of the Cistercian monastery living in the region. In the early 14th century, noting that the red varieties grown in the Rheingau could not compete with the dark reds of France, the monks required that their tenants replant to white varieties better suited to the region. It is believed that Riesling was a dominant variety planted.
Germany is not the only “old-world” country to fully embrace this amazing variety. Equally early in the mid-1400’s, the region of Alsace in France began to produce spectacular Rieslings from its vineyards. Different in style (richer, drier and higher alcohol than those of Germany), the variety expressed characters that are still deemed classically “Riesling”. And with Austria also producing dry-styled Rieslings with a more luscious palate, these European countries built the name of this most noble variety.
With the immigration of Europeans to other countries of the “new-world”, this versatile variety found a home in a very large set of environments. In 1838, Riesling was planted in Australia. In the mid-1800’s Riesling started in the Finger Lake District of New York, with California’s first plantings following in 1857. Then Canada, Chile, South Africa, eastern Europe and New Zealand (which wasn’t until the 1970’s) all started producing Riesling in one style or another.
The truly unique aspect of Riesling versus any other variety of wine grape is that is flourishes in such a diverse set of climates and soils. Each region’s wines have a character that is undeniably Riesling, yet the terroir shines through. New York Riesling is different than Riesling from Alsace, Michigan, Romania or California, yet all regions make quality, varietally-true expressions of the grape. This is not done by Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon (the other three Noble varieties of the world).
For us, with our Rieslings of green apple, citrus, honeysuckle and the El Dorado minerality, we couldn’t ask for a better variety to showcase our cool-climate and acidic soils. The excitement of great Riesling from our small vineyards being compared to those of countries with 600 years of experience only makes us more proud. And although the wines stylistically may be like comparing apples and oranges, there is no mistaking the great variety of Riesling!