History of Riesling - Printable Version

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- Innkeeper - 05-03-2000 02:39 PM

At least one view. Back in the middle ages (1950's) on the East Coast anyway, people drank German Riesling for white wine, and French Reds for red. The Riesling was more popular than French Whites because they were much cheaper. At the time California was producing more gold than wine, and the world was on the Gold Stantard. As a result the German Mark was pegged at 4 to 1 versus the American Dollar.

In the ensuing decade or two a couple of things happened. The world went off the Gold Standard, and Californians turned from gold production to wine. The German Mark quickly grew to 1.5 to 1, and Robert Mondavi put out his first line of wine. His Johannisberg Riesling was priced at an outrageous $7.50 while his Chardonnay (his only Chardonnay at the time) came in at $3.50. Americans bought the Chardonnay, because in those days value was still king. The rest is history viz-a-viz the future of Chardonnay versus Riesling.

In the '80s and '90s producers in Washington and California and later in New York (as Foodie frequently reminds us) started to increase American Riesling production. A few wine writers including Jerry Mead started to plug it as a preferred accompaniment for shellfish. Now there are many outstanding producers of Riesling in all three areas, as well as in some of the recently emerging wine regions. Of course the Germans still produce it, but the cost/value quotient compared to what is being produced here and elsewhere is reminiscent of the Mondavi Riesling/Chardonnay days.

The problem is that Chardonnay is still king of whites, and oaky Chardonnay at that. If anyone knows how to change the American palate, please post your recommendations here. In the meantime let's enjoy our Riesling no matter where it comes from.

- mrdutton - 05-03-2000 02:54 PM


I know the secret to changing the American palate. However, it is a very slow process.

After-all it took me about 35 years or so.....

We have to convince the Americans that they need to broaden their horizans and try many different wines instead of sticking to just a few "tried and true" (or is that "tired and true") wines.

Again, nice to have you back with us.

- Scoop - 05-03-2000 03:06 PM

Chardonnay is firmly planted in the minds of American wine drinkers (as well as in terms of acreage!), and convincing the wine public to switch to other varietals, especially Riesling, which got a bad rap in the 1970s and 1980s in the Blue Nun heyday, is tough work.

Still, in the wine and food press, the noble Riesling is getting some respect again. And it's not just from the usual suspects (Germany and Alsace, where great Rieslings are made), but also from Austria, Australia, New Zealand and the areas mentioned in the US. So the geographic spread of the grape is widening, as is choice and the number of price points. Further, in dining establishments throughout NY City, well chosen Rieslings from all over are popping up on wine lists.

So at least it's more available.

Given it's superior food-friendliness -- moreso with the European versions, but who's counting -- and with a growing interest in fine wines in this country, I believe Riesling is set for comeback, at least in the medium term.

I'm not usually so optimistic, but there it is.



- hotwine - 05-03-2000 04:48 PM

That's wonderful news, that you guys are enjoying Rieslings, and that they are making a comeback in general. But lets hope that demand doesn't increase so much that it drives up prices! I would sure hate to see my favorites double or triple in price. (Just did a quick check of my database (Cellar! v2.20 from Collectware) and saw that there are 14 Riesling labels in the cellar, of which 12 are German.)
Mrs. Hotwine says we're having chicken tonight, so guess which wine will accompany it? No contest in this house.

- mrdutton - 05-03-2000 06:43 PM

Must be nice............ You have to check your computer database to see what you have in your cellar!

All I have to do is open my closet door and look at my wine rack.......

Oh well, one of these days I'll get there!

- hotwine - 05-03-2000 07:27 PM

Don't give up! We were very fortunate 12 years ago to buy an older house (built in 1973) that had a 7' X 10' concrete storm cellar set half in the ground about 35 yards behind the house. To the realtor it was an eyesore, but to me it was a major selling point, and one that convinced me we needed to buy this house. Like you, I stored wines in a closet for years, and took a lot of homefront flak for "wasting" good closet space. Now, I no longer take heat for that, but rather for pouring money into "that hole in the ground", because I've been making a second career out of turning that thing into a wine cellar since we moved in.
You'll get there. In fact, for ideas on using closets for wine storage, see, and his collection of wine cellar photos that people have sent to him. Some are really nice - well-appointed, environmentally controlled, etc. I visit his site once a week or so for inspiration.

- Thomas - 05-04-2000 07:00 AM

Not to sound cynical, although I likely am, Americans drink Chardonnay because that is what they have been told to do.

You change the drinking habits of Americans with a combination of good promotion and pricing. When Riesling begins to show up in Hollywood movies and on television, as Chardonnay did and now Merlot is, then Americans will switch.

One of the secrets in the wine business is that, while Riesling is a hard sell off of retail shelves, it is normally faster selling at winery tasting rooms over Chardonnay--that is because people taste it at the tasting room, and they almost invariably like it. What is there not to like?

I admit, before I moved to the Finger Lakes, I was a "not Riesling" snob, but like all snobs who pooh-pooh what they do not understand, I had neither taste experience with good Riesling, nor a desire for it at the time.

I have since learned that riesling happens to be the most versatile of all winegrapes--can be produced dry, semi-dry, sweet, late harvest and even sparkling, and it shines when matched with a variety of foods.

- mrdutton - 05-04-2000 07:39 AM

Foodie said:

.................and even sparkling, and it shines when matched with a variety of foods.


The Wine Avenger strongly suggests drinking Riesling Sekt with salads and other like foods that present challenges to other wines.

I wouldn't mind trying that out, but I have not been able to yet locally find any sparkling Riesling. I guess I will have to look elsewhere.

- hotwine - 05-04-2000 04:02 PM

Most Sekt that I've encountered has been labeled simply Sekt; you've got to read the fine print on the back label to find that it's made from the Riesling grape. Suggest you try one of your traditional liquor stores and visit their "Champagne knock-off" section, where the el cheapos are displayed. You might find it sitting there waiting for you.
As indicated in recent postings, I'm a big fan of Rieslings, especially those from Germany. But Sekt? Mmmm, thanks, I'll pass.

- Thomas - 05-09-2000 09:07 AM

We have a fellow here in the Finger Lakes region--Hermann Wiemer--whose winery puts out a dry sparkling Rielsing.

As we used to say in Brooklyn, it is owda 'dis woild!

- Jason - 05-10-2000 04:51 PM

IMHO, I think Riesling is where Pinot Noir was several years ago. There was a lot of bad Pinot made and it made the good examples tougher to move.
Now, most of the New World Rieslings are pretty bad, (especially when
they are compared to the Schmitt Sohne line that was mentioned in another post) and they are the first wines most people reach for when going for Riesling. Many seem to be
totally lacking in acidity, which throws off the really good "ying and yang" quality of the grape. They are being grown in overly warm climes and made for the White Zin crowd.
Old World examples are simply too complex for most people to pronounce and understand. When our own producers can up the quality, chefs will get behind them and we'll have a decent chance.

- Thomas - 05-10-2000 06:05 PM

I agree, Jason, but not when it comes to Finger Lakes Riesling. You seem to lump all domestic Rieslings into your condemnation. If you want acid and fruit balance, you cannot beat the Finger Lakes region. I think Washington State fits your description quite completely, and many parts of California too.

In a tasting of Rieslings at a cool climate convention that included Germany, Alsace, Washington State, Vancouver, Ontario and the Finger Lakes, the German and the Finger Lakes Rieslings delivered.

- tomstevenson - 05-11-2000 04:18 AM

Foodie is right about Finger Lakes Riesling, they're great and with so many producers there making world class Riesling, it demonstrates that the region is intrinsically superior for that variety. I also found some stunning Riesling in north Michigan on a recent trip, but there was the consistency shown in the Finger Lakes. It's a much small, younger industry in Michigan, so perhaps the intrinsic quality of the region will turn out to be comparable. My only regret about Rieslings from the northeast is that they are all sold 2-3 years before they start to show classic Riesling bottle-aromas (petrolly et al), so Mr & Mrs Hotwine's cellar will be essential if they want to enjoy these wines at their best.

- Jason - 05-11-2000 04:22 AM

Agree foodie. Have not had a huge amount of tasting experience with your area, but have had the whole Palmer line and was impressed. His Sauv Blanc would make those in the Loire

- Thomas - 05-11-2000 06:49 AM

Palmer is a good producer, Jason, but it is not located in the Finger Lakes region. Palmer is on Long Island, where Riesling just doesn't cut it as well as 300 miles northwest.

Thanks Tom S. I knew if you were out there you would come to my aid....and I agree that the Rielsings here are sold too quickly--the small wineries need the cash. Did you know they have created May as Riesling month? It takes time, but even the stubborn are capable to come around.

- Randy Caparoso - 05-31-2000 01:44 AM

Randy's going to be a Johnny-Come-Lately on this thread, if you don't mind, gentlemen.

I didn't start in the wine business in the Middle Ages. It was more like the Rennaissance -- in 1975. Back then, the public's favorite wines were: Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, Mateus, Lancer's, Inglenook Chenin Blanc, and Wente Grey Riesling. The fancy folks drank Lafite, Latour, and B.V. Private Reserve. The cutting-edge guys drank Ridge Zinfandel, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc, and Piesporter Goldtropfchen Spatlese (Muller Scharzhofberger or J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr if they were really hip). And everyone who wasn't into Cold Duck was digging Mumm's Extra Dry or Cordon Rouge Brut.

Did you notice any mention of Chardonnay? No siree. Although "boutiques" like Montelena and Freemark Abbey were making waves in the late '70s with their Chardonnay, it wasn't until the early '80s that retailers and restaurateurs were able to move significant boxes of this varietal. As a matter of fact, Kendall-Jackson and Glen Ellen played the major roles in this movement. As good a job as guys like Mike Grgich, Dick Arrowood and Rik Forman did with the grape, it was really Jess Jackson and the Benzinger family who put Chardonnay on every wine drinking American's table. You also have to remember, this was the heyday of White Zinfandel (thank you, Sutter Home, for your sweet and bitter fruit).

So all things considered -- all the Blue Nuns, Lancers, White Zins, fake Rieslings and even real German Rieslings that we had to sell -- is it any wonder that wine guys like me welcomed the sudden explosion of interest in Chardonnay with open arms? Why not? Chardonnay makes full flavored, complex, seriously dry wine. By the 1980s, I was sick of selling fruity, frothy wines. The sudden appreciation of Chardonnay was almost God-send. It is, after all, the "queen" of white grapes, as even Hugh Johnson (Riesling fancier as he is) once said.

This is why I continue to find the criticism of Chardonnay so puzzling. No one, after all, has ever acused ME of being preoccupied with Chardonnay. My restaurants offer an incredible variety of white wine types. But you'll never find me disdainful of any truly noble grape -- be it Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, or even things like Rolle, Roussanne, Gruner Veltliner, Grechetto, Picpoul, and Albarino. All these, and much more, are good and useful in their own way. Chardonnay, no less; although in reality, more so than others.

No, gentlemen, Chardonnay is not the "problem." It is actually an extraordinarily good stopping-off-point for the legions of consumers who will soon discover other white wines on their own. And they will, if history tells us anything. Times, and tastes, change. Constantly. This is no time for grousing. The trick is to gently steer people to other "discoveries" -- not so much because the old stuff was so bad, but because the new stuff can be just as good or better!

- Thomas - 05-31-2000 07:00 AM

Well, it had to happen, Randy. Not that we disagree, just that I think you misunderstand the many posts. I don't think we blame Chardonnay for what has happened, at least I do not. I blame the American consumer's lack of self motivation and wine interest in general. Unless told what to consume, Americans likely eat dirt.

So let's start telling American consumers to drink more than just Chardonnay and Merlot. Don't ask or cajole--tell. That is what the consumers seem to accept more readily. Of course, I do not refer to us wine geeks on this board--we consume much, except maybe for winoweenie and his penchant for one color....

- Randy Caparoso - 05-31-2000 02:40 PM

I like that we always agree to disagree, Foodie. As you know, hundreds -- no, thousands -- of people eat in our restaurants everynight. I have personally conducted countless consumer wine dinners, and staff tastings where we have compared California style Chardonnays with, say, very fine Pinot Gris, Riesling, pink wines, sparklers, etc. What you find is very simple: wines like Chardonnay are great tasting, and they go great with food as much or more than other varietals.

It's very hard to convince people when they KNOW this to be true. Americans, as many of you may think, really are not that dumb. Of course, it would be wonderful if they could appreciate more variety. We're all working on that. But I just can't buy the notion that there is something inherently wrong in a big, richly oaked Chardonnay. That's like saying consumers shouldn't like big, richly oaked Cabernets, soft and sumptuous Merlots, fine and delicate Pinot Noirs, light and sweet Rieslings, honking big Zinfandels, easy going White Zinfandels, etc., etc. They're ALL good things. Love, love, love.

- mrdutton - 05-31-2000 06:20 PM

Randy said:

But I just can't buy the notion that there is something inherently wrong in a big, richly oaked Chardonnay.


You are correct, if one LIKEs richly oaked Chardonnay.

If one does not LIKE richly oaked Chardonnay, then one is apt to express his or her opinion by suggesting that there are significant alternatives - even if the varietal is still Chardonnay - to the richly oaked varieties.

I prefer lightly oaked or un-oaked Chardonnay with a reasonable alcohol level. Finding Chardonnay like that is easily accomplished when I look east toward France. It is not so easily accomplished when I try to choose my Chardonnay from the new world varieties.

I am not the only one who shares this opinion.

- hotwine - 05-31-2000 06:32 PM

Right on, MrD. I also hold that opinion.