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A Riesling revival

Winemaker Wendy Stuckey is taking a new look at the sweet German varietal

by Felicity Hughes

Riesling, the sweet Germanic wine thought to have been consigned to the trash can of 1980s bad taste along with home perms and pastel-colored leg warmers, is making a comeback.

And proving Heraclitus’ ancient aphorism that you can’t step into the same river twice, each of these items is back with a noughties twist: Leg warmers have morphed from pastel shades to bolder colors, perms are done properly in the salon, and excellent Rieslings are no longer the exclusive preserve of Austria and Germany. New World winemakers are now leading the charge in reimagining the wine to suit the palates of this generation; winemakers such as Wendy Stuckey of Chateau Ste. Michelle, who was in Tokyo last Friday to hold a winemakers’ dinner at the Westin Tokyo hotel in Ebisu.

The Japan Times caught up with Stuckey prior to the meal to find out about the triumphs and challenges of crafting an elegant wine from this curiously sweet varietal. Before taking up the position in October 2007 as chief white winemaker at Ste. Michelle in Washington State, Stuckey spent 15 years working for Wolf Blass. During that time she won numerous awards, including an annual Wolf Blass award, given to a winemaker in recognition of the work they have done toward producing Riesling in Australia.

“To have a good Riesling you need good-quality grapes; you can have all the skills in the world and not be able to make a good wine without those grapes,” says Stuckey. “In white wines, a lot more things can go wrong that you can hide in red wines. The fine tuning of what you do means that from the time the grapes are picked, you can’t walk away from it.”

Learning her trade in her native Australia allowed Stuckey the freedom to experiment.

“The traditions aren’t as strict; there are no restrictions,” she says. “Australia was part of the movement in New World wine that challenged the way that wine was made in France. Because we are so far from anywhere else, we could do what we wanted to do.”

While many traditionalists believe it’s essential to handpick harvest grapes in order to protect the crop, Stuckey is an advocate of machine harvesting.

“The majority is harvested by machine, but I think with Riesling that is important because you can harvest at night,” she says. “In Washington, the nights are very cool so we don’t have any problems with hot grapes being delivered into the winery. There is only a finite window when the fruit is at its peak: If you use a machine you can get it in that window.”

Ste. Michelle owns some 30 percent of its vine stock; the rest of the grapes are bought in from local farmers. Buying in grapes is also common in French wineries, but unlike those in France, Chateau Ste. Michelle is able to make more demands on its grape growers.

“Our viticultural department spend a lot of time ensuring that they achieve what we’re looking for,” explains Stuckey. “Leading up to harvest, we’ll spend a lot of time walking the vineyards and tasting the fruit. The picking decisions we make are based on flavor. It’s not like in France, where the growers in a lot of instances make the decision when to pick.”

The right time to pick depends largely on the climate, and this has a huge impact on the style of the Riesling. Rieslings from Australia and Washington are worlds apart.

“The fruit is different; in Australia the wines are a bit more fruit forward. You tend to get higher natural acid in Washington than Australia,” she says. “In Washington, we get more of white peach and mandarin. In the cooler regions we get citrus and lime and some minerality.”

With higher acidity comes a higher potential for aging.

“If you don’t have to add acid, they have a better tendency for aging,” Stuckey says. “They’re good to age for 10, 15 to 20 years.”

If you’re looking to store away some vintages, Stuckey recommends 2007 and 2008. “They were both quite cool. We’ve got them blended now and they’re looking quite good,” she says.

A cool European climate and a New World attitude to winemaking have put Chateau Ste. Michelle at the forefront of the Riesling revival, to the extent that in 2007 the winery decided to host the first Riesling Rendezvous. The Rendezvous is a three-day festival — the first of its kind — designed to bring together Riesling experts and producers from around the world to discuss how to get the most from the grape. Attending this first festival is what drew Stuckey to Ste. Michelle, and she is looking forward to the next rendezvous, which is penciled in for 2010.

Stuckey showed off her wines at Victor’s restaurant in the Westin Tokyo. Kicking off the tasting was her 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling (¥2,400 at Ebisu’s Wine Market Party), which showed lovely peach flavors with a slight hint of fragrant carnations. Coupled with a crab and daikon (white radish) mousse, the delicate flavors came together well, illustrating Riesling’s ability to match subtle Japanese cuisine.

The second wine was a 2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling (¥1,800 at Ebisu’s Wine Market Party and Shinagawa’s Dean & Deluca) that was paired with foie gras with apple and sweet and sour sauce. Powerful summery honeys buzzed on the nose of the wine, while sweet sherbet fizzed in the palate, and the creamy textures of the foie gras sparkled on the palate when washed down with a sip of this golden-colored wine.

“The best thing about this job is being able to create something that you know people are going to enjoy,” says Stuckey. “It’s like being an artist.”

As the dinners raised their glasses to their lips and closed their eyes in bliss after each sip, it was clear that Riesling is back in fine style.

Wine Market Party is at Yebisu Garden Place B1F, 4-20-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5424-2580; www.partywine.com Dean & Deluca is at Atre Shinagawa 2F, Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6717-0935; www.deandeluca.co.jp