How Sweet's That Riesling?
Producers ponder how to educate consumers at Riesling Rendezvous
One potential solution was a ranking proposed by the year-old International Riesling Foundation (IRF). Largely driven by wine writer Dan Berger, who could not attend the conference, the "Riesling Taste Scale" is designed to make it easier for consumers to predict the taste they can expect from a particular bottle of Riesling.
At a meeting of the IRF on Sunday, market researchers John Gillespie and Christian Miller presented results of a study among almost 900 wine consumers-- most of them, regular wine drinkers.
The results confirmed what many producers and wine buyers suspected: Most wine lovers don't drink much Riesling, and are generally uninformed about it, though many think Rieslings are sweet by nature.
The 54-page report is available to members of the organization. It also contains the good news that younger, so-called Millennial drinkers are more predisposed to try Riesling than older wine lovers, whose minds are generally set.
The research also helped identify suitable terms to describe the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine. After extensive deliberations, the five categories selected are: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet. They can be indicated on a label, perhaps like the "thermometers" used to rate some spicy salsas on the "piquante" scale.
The levels themselves remain controversial, however. As is well known to producers and critics, sweetness is not only in the tongue of the taster, but is also affected by the acid levels of the wine and perhaps by the ratio of different types of sugars in the wine. Writer Tom Stephenson pointed out that some sugars like fructose taste far sweeter than others. He called for specifying the standard.
Acid, for example, is measured in terms of equivalent tartaric acid, although many wines contain considerable malic or lactic acid.
Perhaps the majority of observers consider a level of about 1% residual sugar (glucose and fructose) as the threshold between "dry" and "off dry." Others believe anything above about 0.7 % is perceptibly sweet. To still others, wines up to 2% with high acidity taste dry.
The group suggested the terms be used as voluntary technical guidelines for winemakers and winery owners in describing their wines for consumers. It seems unlikely that traditional Riesling producers from Europe will place these ratings on bottles, and regulatory issues may affect use in many places, but the scale could be useful in literature, shelf-talkers and promotion.
A strong contingent of Riesling producers, however, regards the term "dry" as a positive marketing statement, even if the wines they sell under that name aren't dry by most critical standards. It's not clear that they want to abandon what has served them as a successful strategy.
Ste. Michelle's CEO, Ted Baseler pointed out that Riesling is the fastest growing white wine in the United States, with sales up 54% in the last three years. He cautioned the assembled producers, wine buyers and sellers, "It's important not to squander our opportunity," by producing inferior wines to exploit the situation.
Ste. Michelle sells about 600,000 cases of its popular Riesling with about 2% residual sugar, and a year ago introduced its 0.7% Dry Riesling nationwide to strong demand. It made 40,000 cases last year.
Jim Trezise (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the New York Wine and Grape Commission is the current president of the International Riesling Foundation. The IRF's mission is: "To increase awareness, understanding, trial and sales of Riesling wines through a comprehensive, integrated system of industry cooperation, research, trade education, and consumer communication." At this time, the IRF is based entirely on voluntary efforts by its board members. It has about 30 members.