In tough times, we continue the search for good, inexpensive wines.

In this month’s Five Wines Under $15 we focus on Riesling. Riesling not only represents Washington’s second most planted white grape at 6,320 acres (Chardonnay is first at 7,654), it also consistently provides wines with tremendously high quality-to-price ratios. As a result, there is an abundance of good to excellent Riesling being produced in Washington at $15 and under – more if you go up a dollar or two. Here we focus on three wineries that are leading the Riesling charge in Washington.

Chateau Ste. Michelle
is the world’s largest producer of Riesling, making over one million cases annually in up to eight different styles from dry to dessert. The winery hosts a Riesling Rendezvous every other year with tastings and seminars that draw producers and consumers from across the globe. The winery’s Eroica Riesling, made in collaboration with the German producer Dr. Loosen, is a benchmark for Washington.

Chateau Ste. Michelle makes over 600,000 cases of its Columbia Valley Riesling alone. This consistently high quality-to-price ratio wine comes in at a mere $9 tariff (locals should note that for August’s Washington Wine Month, the price is lower in many locations). At last year’s Riesling Rendezvous when the 2009 vintage of this wine was sampled in a blind flight and winemaker Wendy Stuckey subsequently stated the price, the room of hundreds of people spontaneously broke into applause.

The 2010 wine, reviewed below, is every bit as good and received our second ever unanimous ‘buy’ vote from participants in this month’s Virtual Tasting. If the mood or meal calls for something with less sugar, go with the Dry Riesling at the same price point.

In its diverse collection of Rieslings, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes one vineyard-designated wine, which comes from Cold Creek Vineyard. Planted in the 1970s, this vineyard, which lies about 40 miles east of Yakima, traditionally boasts a long and warm growing season. A vineyard designate for $15? Yes please.

Washington’s founding winery is not alone in its devotion to the grape. Ninety percent of the production at Pacific Rim is devoted to Riesling, and the winery makes over 250,000 cases annually.

Pacific Rim was originally part of Randall Grahm’s lineup at Bonny Doon. However, it became its own winery in 2006 when a group of Bonny Doon expats headed north in search of Riesling glory. The winery was recently purchased by the Mariani family.

Pacific Rim boasts a diverse lineup of over 10 different Rieslings, including organic, biodynamic, sparkling, and single vineyard offerings. On the educational front, the winery authors the book ‘Riesling Rules,’ extolling the grape’s virtues, as well as a video – Rated R for Riesling of course. In a consistently impressive lineup, the Columbia Valley Riesling in particular, reviewed below, represents an outrageous value year after year.

Last but certainly not least, Charles Smith Wines has also been making a splash with its Kung Fu Girl Riesling. With a label image made in Smith’s iconic black and white style, this wine has been making Riesling inroads across America – and says Washington State in bold black letters on the front of every label. To call this an ambassador wine, however, would be a misnomer; it is a one wine Riesling fighting machine.

Fruit for the Kung Fu Girl wine comes from Evergreen Vineyard in the proposed Ancient Lakes AVA region. This area is currently one of the locations in the state where Riesling has shown the most success. In fact, much of the fruit used in Eroica comes from this vineyard. Other wineries, such as Efeste, make superb vineyard-designated bottlings.

The vineyards at Evergreen – which are currently rapidly expanding – are full of fractured basalt and caliche deposits. Combined with a cool location leading to wines with high acidity, Riesling from Evergreen has a minerality that makes devotees swoon. Charles Smith has been ramping up production of the KFG to exceed 50,000 cases annually.

For consumers, knowing what style of wine to expect when purchasing a bottle of Riesling has always been an issue. The International Riesling Foundation has recently attempted to address this with the Riesling Taste Profile. Turn a bottle of Riesling around and one will frequently find a back label that shows the IRF scale – if it was bottled in the last couple years.

What has the consumer response been to this Riesling revival? According to Nielsen data, Riesling is on the rise, showing one of the largest percentage increases in volume sales in the last year. Perhaps it’s the diversity of foods Riesling pairs so well with from spicy dishes to seafood. Perhaps its because it’s so darn good.

For each of the wines listed below, I’ve never had a bad bottle vintage after vintage. How many other wines can you say that for, especially with price points that barely break into the teens? One of many reasons why Riesling rules.

Read previous Five Under $15s here.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Columbia Valley 2010 $9

+ (Good) A fruit forward, aromatically appealing wine full of ripe tangerine and pear. Rounded and crisp on the palate with pink grapefruit, pear, and peach with well-balanced fruit, sugar, and acidity. 100% Riesling. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 11% alcohol. 2.29% Residual Sugar. Recommended. Sample provided by winery.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling Columbia Valley 2010 $9

+ (Good) Appealing aromas of lime and white peach. The palate is crisp with tart acidity. 100% Riesling. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.0% alcohol. 0.75g/100ml Residual Sugar. Sample provided by winery.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Cold Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley 2010 $15

* (Excellent) Aromatic and full of ultra ripe peaches – the kind that melt in your mouth – along with key lime and white flowers. Off-dry with fruit that carries seamlessly across the palate followed by a long finish. 100% Riesling. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 12.5% alcohol. 2.18 g/100 ml Residual Sugar. 7,464 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Pacific Rim Riesling Columbia Valley 2010 $11

Rating: * (Excellent)
Pale lemon yellow. An aromatically compelling wine with floral notes, peaches, and jasmine. The palate is medium-dry and full off mandarin orange and lime flavors, beautifully stitched together with a zing of acidity that carries along to a lingering finish. 100% Riesling. 11.5% alcohol. 2.3% Residual Sugar.

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling Washington State 2010 $12

+ (Good) An aromatic wine full of ripe yellow apples, the underside of an unripe pineapple, lime zest, quinine, and mineral notes. Palate comes off as just off-dry and tear-drop shaped with a textured feel and a zing of acidity. 100% Riesling. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 12.5% alcohol. 1.58% Residual Sugar. Recommended