Good and Dry—and Cheap

Chateau Ste. Michelle lets its Riesling grapes speak for themselves. Evidently, some say "dry."

Wine is not—or shouldn't be—a product as standardized as a can of Coke or a jug of Best Foods. But even veteran wine drinkers can react like Big Mac fanciers when a wine they think they know tastes differently than expected. The Seattle Weekly tasting team reacted that way a few weeks ago when a new vintage of Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling was opened. You could almost hear the sound of lips being pursed: "Sweet!" "Really sweet!" "Way too sweet!"

Which surprised me. I certainly thought the '05 edition of CSM's Cold Creek was cloying, but I'm hypersensitive to sweetness in Rieslings; anything over about 0.3 percent residual sugar starts tasting like dessert wine to me. But the general reaction had me reaching for the wine's spec sheet. Sure enough, CSM winemakers Bob Berteau and BrennonLeighton had decided to round off fermentation of the Cold Creek grapes with 2.35 percent of their sugar still in solution, which makes the '05 prime drinking with succulent seafood like crab or spicy Asian dishes, but not with more mainline fish or poultry dishes.

Another surprise awaited us. Next in line on the tasting table was CSM's '05 dry Riesling—not the company's mass-market version, but a Northwest-only issue limited to 8,000 cases. And wow, what a wine it is: dry (only 0.65 percent residual sugar), subtly fragrant, fruity but crisp, lingeringly mellow on the finish. And a stone bargain at about $8 a bottle (the Cold Creek runs $14). Dry Rieslings this good from Germany cost $15 and up when you can find them (importers remain convinced that Americans will only drink Riesling on the saccharine side).

Noble dry Riesling is not a complete novelty in the Northwest, but apart from Columbia's Cellarmaster brand, little is to be had at everyday price points. CSM's version was novelty enough to make me call the winemakers to find out what was up. I'm glad I did. The '05 CSM Rieslings are a case study in the glacial but steady trend in Washington winemaking toward letting the fruit tell the winemaker what it wants to be, rather than the winemaker dictating to the fruit.

"Despite its name, Cold Creek is one of our warmest vineyards, and this year Bob and I decided to let the fruit go where it wanted in terms of ripeness," Leighton told me. "Our top-of-the-line Eroica Riesling [a collaboration with German winemaker Ernst Loosen] is lighter in style, like the Rieslings from the Moselle, and this year runs about 1.6 percent residual, so after blending it, we decided to let the remaining Cold Creek speak for itself."

Berteau likes his Riesling on the lighter side, alcoholwise: All three we tasted run 12.5 percent. But since the high-end grapes remaining after blending Eroica and vinifying the single-vineyard Cold Creek were on average lower in sugar, 12.5 percent alcohol meant most of the grapes' sugar was used up achieving that figure. So much the better for us hopeless Riesling fanatics. The CSM dry Riesling is not only tangy on the tongue but high enough in acid (again, like Columbia's Cellarmaster's blend) to make it worth "laying down" for a few years of aging in bottle.

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