Sue and I are back from Riesling Rendezvous 2016, a gathering organized by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The conference brings together winemakers and industry leaders from the four corners of Planet Riesling for three days of tasting, discussion and debate.
I have been fortunate to attend four of the five editions of Riesling Rendezvous beginning with RR2 in 2008. Herewith a quick accounting of my takeaways from the 2016 meeting.
1. Talking around in circles
One constant of the conferences has been a tendency to talk around in circles during the formal tastings — twenty dry Rieslings on Monday and twenty more off-dry wines on Tuesday. (Twenty wines for three hundred participants each day– that, my friends, is a lot of stemware to set up, fill, dump, and replace and a lot of bottles to organize.)
Don’t get me wrong — these tastings are amazing. What a great opportunity for winemakers to benchmark their own wines and assess the state of the industry than by tasting forty of the finest Rieslings on earth and hearing from the winemakers. Truly a priceless experience.
But as the discussion unfolds I have found that the same issues seem to come up over and over again. Do you really think this is a dry Riesling (often stated as an accusation more than a question)? The focus often shifts to the analytical data (RS, TA, PH), which is another set of circles. Then the big question: is this Old World or New World (the wines are tasted blind)? It is as if each wine must fit neatly into a set objective category and, of course, they don’t because wine isn’t really like that.
These debates, unlike the actual tasting of the wines, seem like a dead end to me. Perception of sweet and dry is individual and subjective, so what is dry to you might be sweet to someone else. The analytical data have limited significance, as Jamie Goode, who also attended the meetings, recently explained.
And it doesn’t matter to me very much if someone can guess where the wine is from — wine should not be a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. In any case, even the experts usually couldn’t answer the Old/New geography question with confidence and there were many surprises when makers and regions were revealed.
Talking around in circles doesn’t lead anywhere by itself, but I think it does serve a purpose. Like the tasting itself, it brings people together and often puts them in a frame of mind to take action either in their own winemaking or address the industry’s collective problems.
2. Actions speak louder …
The good news is that once the Riesling folks get beyond ritual circle talking they can and do accomplish quite a lot. One problem that is often noted is that many consumers think of Riesling as a sweet wine, unaware of its great diversity of styles and unable to figure out what is what. The International Riesling Foundation and its very useful Riesling scale came out of earlier Riesling Rendezvous gatherings. Not every winery uses the scale as a back label way to communicate with wine drinkers, but those that do give consumers useful information and the confidence to try a new wine.
Chateau Ste Michelle uses the scale, for example, and has seen significant growth in both its Dry and sweeter Harvest Select wines that share shelf space with the big-volume off-dry Columbia Valley bottling. Consumers seem to be able to find the particular wine style they like best and come back from more. That’s progress.
The “winemaker only” sessions at Riesling Rendezvous allow for transfer of knowledge as well as a frank exchange of opinions and it seems like these discussions have had an important impact. The quality standard of Riesling has risen as technical expertise about vineyard and cellar practices have been shared. That’s progress, too.
3. Riesling’s rising tide
One impact of the rising quality tide, as noted earlier, is that even the experts find it more difficult to tell Old World Riesling from the New World wines. At one point in the dry wine tasting, for example, Tom Barry (of Jim Barry wines) responded to a question by looking at the unidentified wine in his glass and saying simply and approvingly, “This is a nice wine from somewhere.”
The days are gone when Old World wines were typically better made than their New World competitors. Now there are well-made wines from all the regions that participated in the program. But I don’t think the wines have been reduced to a homogeneous “international style” — there is still great diversity even if there is also a trend, well documented in John Winthrop Haeger’s recent book Riesling Rediscovered, toward market-friendly drier styles.
The big moments of the earlier meetings happened when we found a stunningly good wine (and great wines still earned applause in 2016). This time most of them were stunners and the oohs and aahs were loudest when we encountered a wine that surprised by walking a tightrope defined by terroir, vintage or technique with great success, like the memorable 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling from British Columbia. The rising quality tide has served to accentuate and reward originality and authenticity, which is a good thing in my view.
4. Keep it complicated (and tell stories)
Riesling is special — it is my Desert Island wine if I have to choose one. The wines that we tasted spoke clearly and truthfully about Riesling’s progress around the world.
But as quality has increased Riesling has also become a bit more like other wines in the sense that the key factors are not simple dichotomies — Old versus New, dry versus sweet, good versus not-so-good and so on. And this is also a good thing.
Riesling Rendezvous revealed a wine world taking the next step from dichotomies to richer ways of thinking. As Ernie Loosen said at the opening session, complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. How is this done? People understand complicated things through the stories they tell about them.
And that’s where I see Riesling headed now. The story of what is happening today is complicated and important. It’s time to move beyond dichotomies and develop richer narratives about Riesling wine in the Loosen style that will attract and engage consumers, especially younger ones, by connecting them more persuasively to the people and places behind the wines and to their friends who they invite to share them.
Riesling Rendezvous has an important role to play in shaping those stories and helping producers get their complicated messages out. Can’t wait to see (and taste) the next chapter.
Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen for sponsoring Riesling Rendezvous and allowing us to attend. Thanks to everyone we met and talked with for your insights.