by CHRISTINA KELLY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & iesling lovers have much to smile about these days, as the once lackluster varietal is now shining brighter than ever before with a renaissance of sorts.

The grape has had an illustrious career dating back to the 1400s, but a flood of poorly made, cheap and sweet versions slammed the North American continent in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of true Riesling aficionados.

"Good Riesling has always been around, but for a long time it was hard to find them on shelves outside of specialty shops," says Randall Grahm, the creator of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Northern California. Grahm's new endeavor, Pacific Rim Winemakers, is a nearly all Riesling winery made near Red Mountain in East Richland.

Washington is a frontrunner in the production of the food-friendly wine; Grahm and partners are building a $5.7 million winery near Red Mountain (in Benton City) where they expect to produce some 300,000 cases of Riesling in the next five years.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery has championed Riesling for more than 40 years, while other wineries banked on Chardonnay as the preferred white wine. The winery produces seven different styles of Riesling -- more than 800,000 cases annually -- to showcase flavor profiles from dessert sweet to off-dry to bone dry. In 1999 renowned German winemaker Ernst Loosen partnered with Ste. Michelle to produce Eroica, a premium Riesling that has become a bestseller.

"Riesling has definitely made a comeback and I firmly believe that it's up to us, the producers, to continually work for top quality so that its reputation does not get ruined again," Loosen says. "There is really no other grape variety that is so flexible and can be made in so many different styles. And it's still astonishing to me how well Riesling captures the taste -- the terroir -- of where it's grown."

A few years ago Walla Walla-based Long Shadow Vintners partnered with Armin Diel, the German proprietor of the legendary Schlossgut Diel, to create Poet's Leap, an off-dry Riesling with spicy aromatics and a clean, crisp finish. Diel was impressed with the growing conditions in Eastern Washington and signed on early as Long Shadows Vintners began creating its portfolio.

Spokane area wineries have great offerings, including the latest by Barrister Winery: the 2006 Poetic Justice Riesling, a bone-dry summer quaffer with good acidity for food. Latah Creek Winery was one of the first producers of Riesling in the region, and it is still one of their most popular wines, with slightly sweeter flavors. Arbor Crest will offer its 2006 Riesling in a few months.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & iesling provides a crystal clear minerality that tastes and smells like the soil that supports it. It has the sweetness of ripe apple flavors, mingled with fresh floral notes like honeysuckle and jasmine. Flavors associated with Riesling include stone fruits (peaches, apricots), honey and flowers. Northwest Rieslings can have citrus, ripe pear, pineapple and mango flavors as well. It is also low in alcohol.

The best Rieslings have a viscous quality, a lingering fleshy characteristic that coats the tongue and wraps around food as though it were part of the original ingredients.

Northwest Rieslings are produced in a more "New World" style, although Grahm blends some German Riesling into his Pacific Rim to get a hint of the Old World flavors. These Rieslings often display more citrus and stone fruit flavors. Many are easy-drinking fruity wines, but can reach to the heights of liquid nectar with sun-baked stone flavors.

Hugh Johnson, a respected British wine writer, best described Riesling as pure wine, innocent of oak, that precisely reflects its origin in a range from flowery and feather-light to tense, dry and mineral-laden; to unctuous and creamy; to piercing, liquor-like celestial marmalade.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o, what happened to the Riesling market prior to the current renaissance? Vintners have many theories as to why the once-heralded grape lost its audience. Some think the cheap imports, such as Blue Nun and cloyingly sweet Liebfraumilch, had little character or complexity and existed only to wash down potato salad. Some winemakers were growing Riesling grapes in areas that did not have the cool climate necessary, and the result was thin, almost bitter wines that had the acidity for food, but didn't taste good alone. In addition, many wine consumers had the impression that all Rieslings were far too sweet and only consumed by grandmothers.

The resurgence, many believe, started in restaurant kitchens, especially on the West Coast and in metropolitan cities like New York. With the influence of Asian fusion cuisine and increasingly popular spicy ethnic foods, chefs scrambled to find complementary wines that could take the heat found in Thai and Indian foods. The clean, crisp and mouth-coating Riesling turned out to be the perfect wine.

The biggest challenge for consumers is to find the style of Riesling that appeals to them, and that may require opening a lot of bottles. But, with summer in full swing and temperatures soaring, now is the perfect time to find your Riesling style and cool the heat with a low-alcohol, tasty wine that's not only perfect for hot days, but also for the spicy heat of our favorite ethnic foods.

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