-- The third annual International Alsace Varietals Festival, held Feb. 8-10 at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, drew nearly 300 attendees--double the number of last year's event. Thirty-six wineries--up from 17 last year--participated in the three-day festival, which included a technical conference, grand tasting, winemaker dinner and open-house events.
Kristy Charles, executive director of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA), attributed the event's growth to a combination of increased interest in Alsace varietals--particularly Riesling--as well as outreach to other regions, such as Michigan, Oregon, France and Australia. "People were really interested in the event this year," Charles told Wines & Vines
. Wineries from New York's Finger Lakes region, as well as Alsace producer Trimbach, have already expressed interest in the 2009 event, she added.
Vintner Larry Londer, of Anderson Valley's Londer Vineyards, said that the success of the event reflects Americans' desire to try new wines. "All of us like to discover something a little bit different," he said. "Plus, these wines are really food friendly."
Many producers, like Londer, presented Gewürztraminer wines, along with Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. But due to its status as America's fastest-growing white varietal, Riesling was the star of the show.
Sean O'Keefe, whose family owns Chateau Grand Traverse in Northern Michigan, poured samples of his own wines, as well as those of other Michigan producers including Brys Estate, Left Foot Charley and Peninsula Cellars. Chateau Grand Traverse is the largest Riesling producer east of the Rockies, O'Keefe said, and sells a total of 35,000 cases of Riesling each year--ranging in style from dry to late harvest. "If I only had Riesling I'd be really happy with that," he said. The winery also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Edelzwicker, Pinot Grigio, and several other wines.
Of the five Riesling wines that Chateau Grand Traverse produces, its biggest seller is the late-harvest version. "We could sell 100 times as much of that wine if we had it," O'Keefe said. Though most of the winery's customers still prefer the sweeter style, he added, "We're trying to move people into a drier style of Riesling."
Interest in the Chateau Grand Traverse wines is expanding to states beyond Michigan, O'Keefe noted, and the wine is now being distributed in California. "That's why we're here," he said.
For Navarro Vineyards, in Philo, Calif., drier Rieslings are more popular than the sweeter versions. The winery's slightly sweet Gewürztraminer is its top-selling wine, but when it comes to Riesling, "Dry tends to sell better," said winery representative Bill Mitchell. Navarro produces 1,400 cases of Riesling each year.
The strategy for many Riesling producers, it seems, is to offer wines in dry, off-dry and sweet styles, to satisfy a wide range of consumer preferences.
Mendocino's Alsace Festival
Though Riesling is currently being hailed as America's "it" variety, its market share remains relatively small (2.2% by dollar value, versus 22.2% for Chardonnay, according the latest Nielsen figures). Will it ever give mainstream varietals, like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, a run for their money?
"I think both volume and dollar sales will increase as the varietal becomes more popular with U.S. wine drinkers, and wineries that have the marketing funds to put behind it--like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Bonny Doon--really start pushing (Riesling) in the marketplace," Kristy Charles predicted.
But even so, she said, "(Riesling) has a lot of ground to make up before it beats out Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. I think the key is that demand has to increase, and prices for Riesling wines will also have to increase before the variety can truly become a competitor at the top of the white wine market."
Though sweeter-style Rieslings are easier and cheaper to produce in regions like California's Central Valley, Charles noted, drier wines from cooler regions like the Anderson Valley, Washington state, parts of Oregon and the Northeast are where the real potential lies. "Plantings in these latter regions will be slower to come on line… but I believe they'll leave a lasting impression on wine drinkers who are used to the sweet, sticky Rieslings of the past."
As Riesling's popularity increases, the biggest challenge will likely be in keeping up with demand. As one Anderson Valley producer said, "The problem is, there's not enough fruit to go around."