Oregon's Riesling Revival

Learn why this varietal is on the rise.


Winemakers are fascinated by its diversity, winegrowers love its transparency, restaurant sommeliers appreciate its friendliness for food, and wine enthusiasts cherish it for its approachable smoothness and range in levels of sweetness. Oregon Riesling is on the rise, and everyone from vintners to consumers are taking note.

Riesling thrives in Oregon's cool climate and is a varietal known for its transparency and ability to take on the characteristics of where it has taken root - absorbing the unique terroir of Oregon's marine sediment and volcanic soils while adapting effortlessly to the state's checkered micro-climates. Back in the early '60s, however, planting Riesling in Oregon was thought to be improbable by the growing majority of graduates from the University of California, Davis enology and viticulture program. But UC-Davis graduate Richard Sommer, Oregon's originating wine pioneer, rejected the skepticism of his classmates and headed north to Oregon's Umpqua Valley; he was on a mission to plant the well-known cool climate Riesling varietal from Alsace, among other varietals including Burgundy (Pinot Noir). After Sommer's successfully established Hillcrest Vineyards in 1961, other pioneers followed - planting Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in the Willamette Valley. At one time, Riesling was nearly a quarter of the total wine production here in Oregon, but now it accounts for just 5 percent - other varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris gained popularity and became the center of attention within Oregon's growing wine industry.
Now that some of Oregon's older bottlings of Riesling are being opened, vintners are discovering their divinity for ageability, and an interest and enthusiasm in growing and producing Riesling is on the rise. Riesling awareness activist, Harry Peterson-Nedry, who is also the founder, winemaker and managing partner of Chehalem Wines, explains this recent surge in interest, "Riesling grape growing mirrors the conservative precision used on Pinot Noir; relatively high-tech winemaking that is protective of fruit finesse while being transparent to terroir." Peterson-Nedry continues to explain the appreciation for the early bottlings longevity in quality and that, "new dense plantings with a full array of clones are the future."
Peterson-Nedry also explains that Rieslings popularity is growing for reasons such as, the finished styles are mainly on the dry side, "but with a full stylistic range through to botrytised dessert stylings. Many carry screwcap closures. They are food wines front-and-center carrying a finesse, elegance and ageability demanding study, but catering to the hedonist, as well."
I have personally rejoiced in witnessing many Oregon Riesling producers grasp onto the concept of printing the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) scale of sweetness on their back-side labels, guiding consumers into making the correct decision on their Riesling purchase, based on the style that they prefer most of all. Whether it's bone-dry or strikingly sweet, Riesling enthusiasts now have an idea of what is under the cork prior to giving it a pull.
Just as I've always suspected, and advocated as well, Peterson-Nedry says, "Oregonian's subscribe to the view that Riesling is where many consumers began to learn the magic of wine, and where sophisticated wine drinkers return to complete the journey."
I love Oregon Riesling for its unblemished and flawless relationship between complexity, bright acidity and balance. The Rieslings featured in this article are excellent examples of what is being produced in my great home state of Oregon, and I strongly believe they offer us an ample glimpse into the future of what Oregon holds for world-class Riesling. While obtaining that glimpse into the future, we also find out why the winemakers have chosen to make Riesling and what they think makes Oregon a great place to grow Riesling.

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  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 839

    After spending a lot of time in Germany, the natural comparison is between Oregon and Germany. The major difference is in acid balance and the nose. The best from Germany are perfectly acid balanced and have a distinctly German, perfume nose. However the best Rieslings on the west coast are from Oregon. They seem to have a better acid structure than those from CA and WA. The fruit is also quite nice in Oregon. To be fair though, there have been some stellar late harvest Rieslings from CA that could match Germany. In Oregon, Montinore seems to have an emphasis on Germanic grape types and I've tasted several of those that were impressive.

    Oct 16, 2014 at 4:45 PM

  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
    1094165 107,237

    @zuiko - I totally agree about Montinore, and indeed, their Riesling is quite impressive (as are all of their wines). Thanks for reading! Cheers -

    Oct 16, 2014 at 4:47 PM

  • Snooth User: zenSolo
    80681 47

    I've got my eye on the Finger Lakes, I must confess...

    Oct 19, 2014 at 4:30 PM

  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
    1094165 107,237

    @zenSolo - I'll be heading out that way next summer, and I'm looking forward to trying the Rieslings. I hope they have nice zippy acidity, like Oregon's Rieslings - I'm an admitted acid hound!

    Oct 20, 2014 at 7:26 PM

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