Rise of Washington Riesling, Chardonnay
I was looking through harvest data for the past quarter-century in Washington, and I decided it would be interesting to do some side-by-side comparisons of different varieties.
The chart here shows the increased interest in Riesling and Chardonnay in Washington since 1985. Both started relatively low, with Chardonnay at 2,050 tons in 1985 and Riesling at 6,400 tons.
While Riesling basically languished for nearly 20 years, not rising above 16,000 tons harvested until 2004, Chardonnay began to take off in 1997 and skyrocketed to a high of 35,800 tons in 2002. It nearly got back to that number in 2009, at 33,400 tons.
Note Chardonnay’s dip to 4,550 tons in 1991 and 8,000 tons in 1996. Both of those were a result of severe winters that hurt Chardonnay production.
Meanwhile, Riesling’s rise since 2002 has been nothing short of meteoric and impressive. Chateau Ste. Michelle, which launched Washington’s Riesling renaissance in 2000 with the first release of Eroica, now produces a million cases of Riesling. A full 45% of Ste. Michelle’s total production is Riesling, and it is the single largest Riesling producer in the world.
Ste. Michelle isn’t alone, however. Pacific Rim Winemakers relocated to Washington from California in 2005 and has steadily increased its near-exclusive Riesling production to more than 150,000 cases. Hogue Cellars in Prosser makes more than 200,000 cases of Riesling. And Covey Run Winery and sister winery Columbia combine for well over 100,000 cases.
How high is the Washington Riesling ceiling? Difficult to say. It is a high-production variety that grows well in Washington - often able to achieve five to six tons of fruit per acre. California also has an interest in Riesling, crushing more than 25,000 tons last fall. But to put this in perspective, it’s the only major grape variety that Washington crushes more of than California.
Ste. Michelle, Hogue and Pacific Rim have invested a lot into Riesling. As American wine consumers understand all Riesling is not sweet (even though a lot of it is) and is the most versatile food wine on the shelf, the grape can continue to shine - and increase production.