How Sweet's That Riesling?

Producers ponder how to educate consumers at Riesling Rendezvous

by Paul Franson
Riesling Wines
Woodinville, Wash. -- Reassuring consumers that not all Riesling wines are sweet and yet not turning-off those who "talk dry, drink sweet" was the top issue at the second annual Riesling Rendezvous ending today in the Seattle area.

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.

Riesling Wine
The next step is to develop a simple graphic design showing the five levels from Dry to Sweet, and a simple indication of where a particular wine falls. This design may be used on back labels, merchandising materials, websites and elsewhere. The goal is to have a common, simple, consumer-friendly system for identifying Riesling tastes.

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.

Riesling Wines
The Riesling Rendezvous is sponsored by Ste. Michelle Estates, the world's largest Riesling producer, and famed German winery Dr. Loosen. The two also jointly produce the Eroica Riesling, widely credited with sparking recent interest in the variety.

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 (jimtrezise@nywgf.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.
Posted on 07.30.2008 - 14:11:11 PST
With all due respect to Andrea, I couldn't disagree more, about the use of such a classification in the first place, which I find long overdue, and about the merits of dry Riesling in general. Sorry, but go and tell that to the Alsatians, the Aussies in Clare or Eden, or to Austrians like Rudy and FX Pichler, not to mention the increasing number of young German producers who, global warming aiding, are increasingly vinifying their juice to trocken or at least halbtrocken levels of dryness, with notably complex results. Bitterness is not an intrinsic aspect of dry Riesling: it is the fruit of unripe grapes. German producers would do well to ponder Jancis Robinson's last column in the FT. As she makes clear, even the "little old ladies" of Queen Mother vintage, the ideal audience for the so called "classic" German Riesling, now find the arrival of yet another "sweet" Kabinett a disappointment, and having sipped and spat through my share of Thiese and Wiest tastings, I must concur.
Easton, PA USA

Posted on 07.30.2008 - 12:51:25 PST
In consumer edcation settings, I always remind consumers that wine is made from grapes and grapes are fruit. And that there should always be a healthy fruit smell/taste in any wine. I am not a big fan of this proposed classification, as it reinforces that notion that "sweet" wines are only for the novice, and that real wine drinkers don't like "sweet" wine. When consumers are shown classic German rieslings in the proper context, ie. with the right food and at the proper temperature, they usually "get it"!
I am not a fan of dry rieslings as they usually tend to be bitter and devoid of character. And why, oh why, do American producers of riesling make them at 12% alcohol? One of the joys of great German riesling is that, at 8%, you can drink them all day and not feel as if you need a nap. They are great thirst quenchers on a hot day, and will go with just about any thing on the table.
Carlton, OR USA

Posted on 07.31.2008 - 18:53:32 PST
In considering a proposed scale such as this one, we must separate the idea of wine quality. The scale is not going to, and therefore should not suggest, that a wine is good or bad. In the context of riesling especially, balance is key, and this point often distinguishes the tasty from the not-so-tasty. Like Andrea said, we can have a delicious, off-dry (and balanced) riesling checking in at 8%. But don't ignore the fact that some of the best rieslings in the world clock 12% (yes, Austria, Clare come to mind). A bitter riesling at 12% has issues that extend beyond its dry nature. The scale must be objective, it's up to the wine grower to make the stuff taste right.
Penticton, BC Canada