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NW boosts global Riesling cred with Dan Berger
We are fortunate to be in a golden era of Riesling. So says one of the world’s leading experts on what he calls the greatest wine on Earth.
We recently chatted with Dan Berger, a longtime wine journalist who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., and one of the founders of the International Riesling Foundation. We caught Berger in a particularly great mood because he’d just finished tasting through a few flights of world-class Rieslings from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.
Berger has come up to the Northwest for decades to evaluate wines and talk to growers and winemakers. This fall, he was particularly smitten with the dry Rieslings he tasted and now observes a shift from a region with some great wines to an area with across-the-board world-class Rieslings.
“I think it starts with the fruit,” Berger told Great Northwest Wine. “This region couldn’t be producing that much Riesling that’s all so good if it wasn’t really good fruit to start with. So obviously, someone has learned how to grow it. But in particular, they’ve learned how to prune it, how to trellis it, how to fertilize it, how to deal with the water.”
Listen here for the full interview:
Dan Berger’s region-by-region analysis of Northwest Riesling
Berger had the opportunity to taste several of the driest Rieslings in the Pacific Northwest, all under 0.5 percent residual sugar. He saw through this a shift to more remarkable wines.
“I think the distinctive characteristic of each Riesling region in the world is becoming more evident as time goes by,” he said. “We know what a German Riesling tastes like, and now we’re beginning to see the differences within Germany. So we see the differences between Mosel and Rheingau and Rheinhessen and so forth.”
He said that’s now becoming evident in the Northwest, and it’s exciting.
“As we go down that road and we begin to see more and more of what is being produced in this region, the Pacific Northwest, we’re beginning to see some more distinctiveness,” Berger said. “What I like about that is we can now begin to pick out what is a stylistic wine from these regions and you see the character and you see the value because various producers are charging $17-$18.
“You can’t really find that kind of distinctive characteristic in other regions with the same persistence.”
Here’s his analysis of various Northwest regions:
Columbia Valley: The Columbia Valley, Berger said, is making particularly marvelous Rieslings that are showing regional characteristic. Berger remains astonished at the ability of Chateau Ste. Michelle to not only provide leadership but also craft some of the world’s best Rieslings in consistently large amounts.
He added that it is no longer just the Chateau Ste. Michelle show, either.
“It’s not just two or three or four producers. Now, it’s dozens of producers making world-class Riesling from this region.”
Willamette Valley: The biggest obstacle in the heart of Oregon wine country is the land is too valuable to craft a lot of great Riesling because winemakers can make three to four times as much by planting and making Pinot Noir.
Berger recalls visiting the Willamette Valley in the 1980s with German-American wine merchant Peter Sichel and saying he thought the wines tasted “Germanic.” Sichel grabbed a glass with an “I’ll be the judge of that” attitude – and reluctantly agreed.
“The potential was always there,” Berger said. “But the expense of growing grapes doesn’t permit them to put a lot of Riesling in the ground.”
Columbia Gorge: Berger’s experience with Columbia Gorge Rieslings was minimal until this judging, and he was startled by the quality he saw from such producers as Mt. Hood Winery in Hood River, Ore.
“There’s a minerality to those wines, which are slightly different from anything we’d seen before,” he said. “Certainly, there is obvious potential there. That was a really remarkable wine. I just jumped out of my chair.”
Okanagan Valley: Berger has been a big fan of such producers as Gehringer Brothers, JoieFarm and Wild Goose for several years. The biggest issue is the lack of availability of the wines beyond the province.
“It would be nice to see some of the Canadian wines coming in,” he said. “The only way to get it is to go to Canada and buy it.”
International Riesling Foundation
Several years ago, Berger was attending the Riesling Rendezvous at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash. He ended up having lunch with a number of influential folks – including Ste. Michelle CEO Ted Baseler – and they formed the International Riesling Foundation.
“It has become the spokesperson for Riesling,” Berger said. “What we’re doing is getting out there and giving moral and emotional support to people who are making Riesling.”
Berger said the IRF, led by Executive Director Jim Trezise in upstate New York, is helping the cause of Riesling move forward. That, he said, has helped lead us all into a golden age of Riesling.
“Riesling is selling for much less than it should,” he said. “If the world were in a better place for wine lovers, these wines would all sell for twice as much.”
One of the most significant developments to come out of the IRF is the Riesling taste profile, also known as the Riesling scale. It’s something Berger developed a few years ago and is used as a tool by winemakers to provide a way for consumers to quickly tell how sweet or dry a Riesling is.
The winemaker will use residual sugar, acidity and pH to decide just how sweet or dry a Riesling is perceived to be.
“Look at the back label, see the scale, and if the arrow is over “medium-dry,” then you know the wine is going to be medium-dry,” Berger said.
Already, the Riesling scale is used on millions of bottles of Riesling around the world.
This helps ward off the persistent issue that consumers have with Riesling: They think it’s all sweet – when it isn’t. In fact, Berger touts Riesling as the most versatile wine on the planet.
Berger’s favorite Riesling food pairings
“It’s the greatest grape in the world,” Berger enthused. “Forget all those red wine grapes. You can make everything under the sun. It works with more foods than probably anything else.”
Berger said this is because Riesling tends to be transparent to its region, showing off differences in soil type, altitude, heat and a dozen other factors.
Here are a few of Berger’s favorite pairings with dry Rieslings:
- Asian foods, such as Thai, Japanese, Chinese and Indian.
- Delicate seafood dishes.
- Pizza with a white sauce.
- Light, elegant dishes.