In the beginning of the Northwest wine industry, most people thought only white German varietals would thrive here. Thus, many of the first plantings were riesling, which originated in Germany’s Rheingau region. The boom of sweet, mediocre riesling, popular in the 1970s, fell out of fashion in favor of chardonnay,merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Recently, however, Northwest producers have rediscovered this aromatic varietal with an eye toward Alsatian-style winemaking techniques, meaning dry and off-dry versions with no or very little residual sugar. Beyond high acidity and winemaking style, riesling showcases its terroir. Site-specific riesling is all the rage in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, despite the steady decline in overall planted acreage. At Trisaetum, winemaker James Frey expresses his deep devotion to the varietal by producing eight versions of each vintage. We had a chance to talk shop.
425: Tell us about the history of riesling in the Willamette Valley.
Frey: People have been planting riesling here since the 1960s, along with pinot noir. Pinot became so popular, and then people started trying chardonnay and pinot gris. Riesling has always been there but had taken a backseat. Now in the last five to 10 years, there are more single vineyard options, and people are taking it seriously. It’s an exciting time. A rebirth. A renaissance.
425: You seem to have a particular affection for the varietal. How did that begin?
Frey: It is the first grape that I fell in love with. My family is originally from Alsace — multiple generations. I must have riesling in my DNA. When I first planted my vineyard, I planted riesling right along with my pinot noir. Everyone thought I was crazy.
425: What style of riesling do you make?
Frey: Site-specific, dry, and off-dry versions. One of my favorite things to do is pour all eight for customers in the tasting room.
425: Most winemakers ferment a couple of large tanks, but your approach is quite the opposite.
Frey: I might do 120 little ferments in oak, stainless steel, and concrete barrels versus one or two big tank ferments. It allows me to be a little bit more risk-taking on any individual ferments.
425: Does riesling need to be aged before it is released? And can it stand up to aging in bottle once purchased?
Frey: For single vineyard rieslings, I really like the freshness and the precision of the wines when bottled after six months. For the estate reserves, I blend unique barrels for nine to 10 months. Some people keep it in barrel up to 18 months. But I think it loses some of that life and freshness. They do get better and more interesting with age. I do like them after three to five years in bottle, but they drink great right away.
oregon rieslings to try
Orange zest, honeysuckle, and white flowers on the nose with loads of acidity on the palate and stone fruits like nectarine. This wine has so much vibrancy and a hit of minerality from its volcanic soils. Pair it with softly poached halibut and some sort of dish utilizing pickled kumquats.
Eola-Amity Hills; $24
Soft and elegant, this wine manages to convey freshness despite being sweet. Try with shrimp coconut curry or spicy papaya salad.
Made from 40-plus year vines, this wine is an elegant caress. Simultaneously bold with peach, apple, citrus, and pepper, it is also soft and luscious on the palate. Because it is still on the off-dry side, pair with something unctuous but not too spicy, like duck, pork, or crab. For a cheese pairing, try something delicate — not too funky.
Of all the rieslings tasted for this lineup, Yamhill Valley’s have the most pronounced petrol element — an aromatic component commonly found in European rieslings. This dry version also has citrus, peach, honey, and some star fruit on the palate, which is teeming with acidity. It would go great with eggy-cheesy dishes or anything seafood — especially citrus-laced Mediterranean dishes.
Willamette Valley; $18
Pack your bags to the tropics with this nose featuring pineapple, passion fruit, and flowers. On the palate, the flavors are more apple and peach, with citrus zest. Pairs perfectly with spicy Indian butter chicken or Thai dishes.
Willamette Valley; $18
It has a fruity nose with lime, nectarine, and pear, followed by green apple and citrus on the palate. Webber suggests barbecue chicken shish kebabs and saffron rice, or shrimp ceviche.
Dundee Hills; $40
Like liquid gold, this dessert-sweet riesling drips with honeysuckle, white peach, and apricot. Drizzle over ice cream or pound cake, or sip as a desert.