A Rendezvous with BC Riesling

BC Report – August 2016

Rhys Pender

Rhys Pender MW

I’m recently back from a trip to Seattle where I was attending Riesling Rendezvous, a big love-in for riesling geeks from around the world. These riesling homages take place on a rotating schedule between Washington, Germany and Australia. My wife and I were there pouring our Little Farm Riesling but I was also there with my media hat on, filling my boots with what is happening in the world of riesling. A number of Canadian producers were pouring their wines alongside established heavyweights from Germany, Australia, France, Austria, New Zealand and all corners of the USA. In short, Canadian rieslings showed particularly well, raising many eyebrows when the wines were unveiled in the blind tastings and clearly showing that Canadian riesling is a serious, important wine that can stand up proudly on the global stage.

Riesling, as most of us know, has had its challenges in life. It has spent much of its existence being misunderstood. Its current status is a far cry from its early heady days in the late 19th and early 20th century when German riesling was considered one of the greatest wines in the world and its reputation and prices held equal to or above such illustrious wines as Burgundy and Bordeaux. I’ve always wondered how a grape with such history – that can be so crisp, refreshing, citrusy and lively – cannot gain widespread appeal amongst the masses, especially considering varieties like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and even moscato somehow managed to become immense global brands. Surely riesling has all the elements to have similar appeal? But no, it has never happened and the much-written-about pending riesling revival or revolution has never materialized. I finally figured out at Riesling Rendezvous why this is. It is because riesling is just too complicated. Too complicated to be simple enough for casual wine drinkers to make sense of it. It is too complex in its flavours and too diverse in its styles. It simply can’t be reduced to a single simple message. Its strengths as a grape also turn out to be its weaknesses.

In fact, the only time riesling was close to being a massive global success was during the 70s and 80s when it firmly established the unfortunate and misleading image that it is always cheap, sweet, fruity and, for the most part, German. These stereotypes have held strong to this day despite the fact that this style seems to be on the decline. Ernie Loosen summed up riesling’s fight very well when he said, “it feels like we are hitting our head against a brick wall. The wall was built by us. But we are making progress.” Riesling producers are stubborn and will not give up easily. Many of us still think of German riesling as sweeter, light and delicate in style although this style is less and less popular in Germany. As John Haeger reports in his book Riesling Rediscovered, more and more German riesling is made in a dry style, and sweeter styles are mostly made for a North American market that is hanging on to the preconceived image. Germans themselves now drink mostly dry styles of riesling, similar to what North Americans would associate with wines coming from Alsace or Australia. Loosen talked of rebuilding the noble reputation of the grape and dealing with new markets and generations who might not hold negative preconceived ideas. Riesling may never be a great mass success but it certainly can build its quality reputation, and getting it in people’s mouths and letting them see what riesling really is all about is the answer.

Riesling Rendevous

But this is the BC Report and I am deviating off topic. Time to come back to BC and BC riesling. Things are looking pretty good in BC. There are now a number of producers making serious efforts to produce top quality riesling, and the results are impressive. At Riesling Rendezvous, Tantalus, Synchromesh, Kitsch, Martin’s Lane, Cedar Creek, Mission Hill and Little Farm were joined by Cave Springs and Hidden Bench from Ontario. Not surprisingly given the limited export reach of Canadian riesling, nobody in the international crowd picked out any of the BC wines (Tantalus, Synchromesh and Martin’s Lane) in the blind tastings (20 wines blind two days in a row) but all wines were heavily praised and there was pleasant surprise when the wines were revealed. One speaker commented that the quality of Canadian riesling might be the key takeaway message from the event. That’s quite the honour amongst hundreds of great rieslings from around the world.

Plantings of riesling in BC have actually grown strongly over recent years. There were 511 acres of riesling planted in 2014 (the last survey) making up 10% of the white variety plantings and 5% of overall acreage. It has grown 116% from 236 acres in 2004, but is still only the fourth most planted white behind pinot gris, chardonnay and gewurztraminer. The good news is that less and less of these grapes are being turned into wines made to the global riesling-stereotype style and instead are more focused on intense, serious, high quality wine. These could be in the bone dry, high acid style or the equally successful styles that balance racy acidity with residual sugar, but always with a powerful intensity of flavour. Serious wines.

Gray Monk Riesling 20138th Generation Riesling 2015La Frenz Riesling Freedom 75 2015Lake Breeze Winemaker's Series Riesling 2012Mt. Boucherie Riesling Estate 2013Oak Bay Gebert Family Reserve Riesling 2013Synchromesh Riesling Thorny Vines Vineyard 2015

It feels to me that the last few years have seen a really strong focus towards quality in BC. Not that good wines weren’t made, but most of the riesling seemed to be aimed at being a low price, broad crowd pleaser. More and more wines are a little pricier but a lot more intense and quality focused. This was evident in the recent judging of the National Wine Awards of Canada. To be honest, Ontario riesling has pretty much always been superior to BC in these competitions and while there were still many great Ontario wines, this year things were different and many of the best rieslings I personally tasted in my flights were from BC. Less simple, fruity wines and more serious, intense and concentrated examples. Seven of the top ten riesling overall were from BC this year including the Gray Monk 2013 Riesling which won a Platinum medal. An impressive showing.

This all bodes well for the future of the grape in BC. With the wine world taking notice and new generations coming along with open minds there is room for BC winemakers to explore just how good this complex grape can be.

Rhys Pender MW


WineAlign in BC

In addition to Rhys Pender’s BC Report, we publish the popular 20 Under $20 shopping guide and the Critics’ Picks report which highlights a dozen of our favourites from the last month (at any price point). Treve Ring pens a wandering wine column in Treve’s Travels, capturing her thoughts and tastes from the road and, lastly, Anthony Gismondi closes out the month with his Final Blend column – an expert insight into wine culture and trends, honed by more than 25 years experience as an influential critic.