Virginia Rieslings vs the World

Virginia’s diverse climate allows it to produce nearly every grape imaginable. The state is fortunate to not only have a number of French and Italian varietals, but also vines from Germany, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere.

That aside, saying Virginia isn’t known for Riesling would be a major understatement. Riesling’s home is Germany, although it’s also found in the New York Finger Lakes, Oregon, California’s Central Coast, and certain parts of Australia.

Riesling requires cool growing conditions, so it loves high elevation or warm spots in areas otherwise known for colder weather. That limits the places in Virginia where Riesling is truly suitable. Most of Virginia’s 25 acres of Riesling is found in the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys, although a tiny number of vineyards east the Blue Ridge such as Linden and Grey Ghost also have it.

To understand why Virginia has so little of this varietal, I approached Luke Trainum, winemaker of Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Winery. Their Riesling is planted in their second vineyard, a steep hill in the southern Shenandoah Valley. He explained (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing):

“Riesling east of the Blue Ridge struggles, mostly due to humidity. It grows well for us in the valley so long as we are not facing a year of excess moisture or oppressive humidity. As a varietal it is quite prone to botrytis so keeping the canopy clean with plenty of airflow is paramount.

As a vine it is not especially needy, but it does require the steps of the growing season to be well timed and executed properly. As for production, they tend to throw smaller, lightweight clusters that reduce the yield as far as tons per acre goes but really draws out potent aromatics and a concentration of flavor. In the vineyard you can tell you are in the Riesling block just by the smell standing in the middle of it.

Overall, it is enjoyable to grow and very exciting to work with in the winery. Even though it does not throw us the largest crops, what it does give us is a tremendous depth of flavor and aromatics.”

Since there is so little Virginia Riesling, I picked three places – Hazy Mountain, Linden Vineyards, and Rockbridge Vineyards (southern Shenandoah Valley) – and put them against wines from the Finger Lakes and Germany.

I tried to only sample dry Rieslings to make everything as comparable as possible, although the Rockbridge was off-dry.

The contestants:

  1. (Germany, Mosel) 2020 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler ($19.99, Total Wine)
  2. (Virginia) 2018 Linden Vineyards ($25 at the winery)
  3. (Finger Lakes) 2019 Forge Cellars Classique ($17.95 at local wine shops)
  4. (Germany, Pfalz) 2019 Pfeffingen Dry Riesling ($17.95 – $21.95)
  5. (Finger Lakes) 2017 District Winery Riesling ($23 at the winery)
  6. (Virginia, Shenandoah Valley) 2015 Rockbridge White Riesling ($21, sold out at the winery)
  7. (Germany, Pfalz) 2020 Gerd Anselmann Riesling (Dry) ($19.99, Total Wine)
  8. (Finger Lakes) 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank “Eugenia” ($32, Wine Searcher)
  9. (Virginia, Shenandoah Valley) 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling ($27 at the winery)

    I did this event with a group of friends, with all bottles bagged up. I allowed people to split votes between two bottles.

Flight 1 / Round 1:

  • Wine 1: 2020 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler (Germany, 2 full votes)
  • Wine 2: 2018 Linden Vineyards (Virgina, 2 full votes, 2 x ½ votes, Winner)
  • Wine 3: 2019 Forge Cellars Classique (FLX, 1 full vote, 2 x ½ votes)

Fun round! The votes were well spread. Bottle #2 (Linden) was the favorite but not by a huge margin.

We found the German Dr. H. to be very Pinot Grigio-like, which threw us off. Lighter color, tropical notes (especially peach). Notes of lime on the palate. A very drinkable wine.

The Linden 2018 was a pale gold. Our participants noted aromas ranging from lemon-y, petrol, to minerality. Granny Smith on the palate. This wine also had more body. Winemaker Jim Law called this “A pretty, light bodied, playfully styled Riesling.” I thought this was a very nice wine in a vintage that was incredibly wet and difficult.

The Forge Cellars was a pale gold with slate, lemon, and petrol on the nose. Super high acid. Very round on the palate.

Overall I think we gravitated towards the drinkability of the Linden.

Flight 2 / Round 1:

  • Wine 4: 2019 Pfeffingen Dry Riesling (Germany, zero votes)
  • Wine 5: 2019 District Winery Riesling (FLX, 4 votes, winner)
  • Wine 6: 2015 Rockbridge White Riesling (Virginia, 3 votes)

This was my favorite round!

The Pfeffingen had a really light color. Flint on the nose, lemon or lemongrass on the nose and palate. Some noted ginger on the nose as well.

The District Winery was described as “The type of Riesling I want to be recommended to me.” Long, zesty finish. We had all sorts of notes on the nose, including pear, apple, limestone, chalk, even rubber (petrol was not described). Lots and lots of lemon on the palate.

The Rockbridge was probably the most unique wine of the night – but in a good way. We noted it seemed to have a touch of noble rot, which was a quality that when it was loved, it was really loved. Nose had notes of honey and maybe wax, while the body was oily or waxy, with an almost ginger ale quality to it. The color was also exceptionally dark, with an almost orange hue.

I asked winemaker Shep Rouse for details, and he explained “I used icewine to sweeten it although the icewine grapes were frozen in a freezer. The Riesling is estate bottled and grown at 2,000 ft elevation. There was little noble rot in the constituents but the cryoconcentration of the juice for the icewine creates Botrytis-like character.”

From left to right; Pfeffingen, City Winery, and Rockbridge. Look at the color on the right glass!

Some who voted for Rockbridge said it was their favorite wine of the night – although noble rot characteristics gave it something of a ‘you can only enjoy one glass at a time’ quality to it.

Flight 3 / Round 1:

  • Wine 7: Gerd Anselmann Riesling (Dry) (Germany, zero votes)
  • Wine 8: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank “Eugenia” (FLX, 3 votes)
  • Wine 9: 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling (Virginia, 4 votes, winner)

The German Gerd was possibly our least favorite wine of the evening. Fruity nose but it seemed off balance. Acidity on the lower end.

The Dr. Konstantin Frank had various descriptions. On the nose we found petrol, tire, flint, slate. On the palate it was ripe fruit, maybe yellow apple. Higher acidity here too.

The Hazy Mountain was a lighter color, and I swear had some ‘funk’ on the nose. Honey on the palate, as well as apple and pear notes. But the funk was a feature not a flaw; it didn’t appear on the palate at all. I suspect if I had given it more time to breathe this aroma would have dissipated and the wine would have gotten even more votes.

Final Round:

  • Wine 2: 2018 Linden Vineyards (Virginia, 1 vote)
  • Wine 5: 2017 District Winery Riesling (FLX, 5 votes, winner)
  • Wine 9: 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling (Virginia, 1 vote)

I don’t have detailed tasting notes beyond what’s already written. The Linden was probably the easiest drinking of this set. The District Winery was very well balanced.

Winner? D.C.’s very own District Winery, which used Finger Lakes fruit.

Drinking these wines was fun. But equally fun was talking about them – and we had plenty to talk about.

Put simply, all of us were SHOCKED that two Virginia Rieslings made it to the final round. As much as we love Virginia wine, none of us had faith that our Rieslings would stand up to either Germany or the Finger Lakes. Yet here were at the final round, two Virginia wines on the table and none from Germany.

So what happened?

Our best guess is that the German wines we had were…put simply…probably not this country’s best examples. Germany exports lots of Riesling, so we were likely getting cheap wines meant for an American audience. I suspect Germany also focuses on off-dry Rieslings as opposed to drier versions, so that may have further skewed the ratings.

Even with that in mind, Finger Lakes didn’t kick-butt as I would have thought. Dr. Konstantin and Forge Cellars are world-famous Riesling producers, yet neither got through their first round (I admit, I did love that Forge).

But the simplest answer is that when Virginia makes Riesling, it does it well. Out of the nine wines we blind-tasted, the three Virginia bottles easily landed in the top half. Some would have put the Rockbridge wine as the best of the evening. That’s a damn good showing for a region that is hardly known for this varietal.

So next time you’re debating picking of a Riesling – look for one from Virginia! The price points of Virginia Rieslings are very comparable to those of elsewhere, and I’d humbly say the quality was superior.

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