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Continued: Washington is on a roll with the sweet stuff

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 17, 2010 - 12:51 PM

It's one of the oldest adages in the wine trade. We talk dry but drink sweet.

Millions of wine consumers "graduate" from white zins to Kendall Jackson Chardonnay or Santa Margherita Pinto Grigio, blissfully unaware that those wines contain more than a dollop of residual sugar.

Yet when presented with a riesling or moscato, they politely demur. "Oh, no, I don't drink sweet wines," they say, even though they basically do.

I come not to bury such consumers, but to encourage them to open their minds (and palates). There might be no better place to start than with Washington state, and no better time than this weekend's Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience, where that state's wines will be showcased.

The nation's northwest corner produces some massive red wines of note and some dandy inexpensive whites. Large wineries such as Columbia Crest, Hogue and Chateau Ste. Michelle are among the most reliable brands anywhere at various price points. But I'm especially excited by what they and others are doing with riesling.

This is a grape that has thrived in Europe's northernmost growing areas -- Germany, Austria and France's Alsace -- and now we're finding that this holds true on these shores, with Washington and New York's Finger Lakes region at the forefront.

Rieslings come in all levels of sweetness, and this year we'll see domestic bottles with a "Taste Profile" on the back label denoting the level. But the key with all of them is having enough minerality and acidity to create balance on the palate. They should taste clean and pure, no matter what the sugar level is.

The grape itself is so delicious that winemakers from Germany's Mosel region to Washington's Yakima Valley are best served by staying out of the way: We don't need no stinkin' oak in our rieslings.

The flavor profiles vary almost as much as the sweetness levels. Snoqualmie's Winemakers Select is like a pear cocktail, but the Seven Hills Columbia Valley tastes more melon-y and the Cupcake Yakima Valley has a Sprite-like "limon" thing going on. Hogue's basic Columbia Valley Riesling is redolent of green apples, while the same winery's Late Harvest White Riesling brings peaches and honey to the fore.

All these wines are swell introductions, generally for $15 or less, but my favorite might be the refreshing, lively, semi-sweet Charles Smith "Kungfu Girl" Riesling. A couple of more ambitious offerings in the $20-$25 range are the smooth, vibrant Chehalem Reserve and a delicious collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Germany's estimable Ernst Loosen called "Eroica."

Growers and vintners out Washington way have caught on. In last fall's record harvest, just over 20 percent of the grapes crushed in the state were riesling: 35,000 tons, more than any other variety. That's sweet news for all of us who have come to adore this grape, and who hope others join the club.

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com Read Ward on Wine at startribune.com/blogs/wine.

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  • Cheers to the Food & Wine Experience.

  • FOOD & WINE EXPERIENCE

    When: 10 a.m-5 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

    Where: Minneapolis Convention Center, Hall E, 1301 2nd Av. S., Mpls.

    What: More than 200 vendors offer samples of food, beer and wine, plus demonstrations, wine seminars and a Local Chefs' Challenge.

    Tickets: $65, available at the door or www.foodwineshow.com; $20 for Reserve wine tasting.

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