A Taste Scale for Riesling

International Riesling Foundation proposes sweetness rating

by Kate Lavin
International Riesling Foundation
San Rafael, Calif. -- Building upon an idea launched at the Riesling Rendezvous event held this July in Washington state, the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) this week published a scale for members to differentiate the various sweetness levels of the popular varietal.

The taste scale, spearheaded by Dan Berger, a long-time wine writer based in Sonoma County, is meant to help educate consumers about Riesling and its different levels of sweetness. According to the IRF, many consumers assume that all Rieslings are sweet, dessert wines and are unaware of its many styles.

"I teach about wine, and I constantly am surprised by people's reactions to Rieslings. They're really across the board," said Patrick W. Fegan, who is an IRF director and director of the Chicago Wine School. "People's knowledge about Riesling is confusing to winemakers," he told Wines & Vines, in explaining the reason behind creating a "clean, not terribly intrusive kind of a logo."

Number crunching

Under the proposal, Rieslings would be labeled for sweetness based on their acid-to-sugar ratios, as well as pH levels. Such statistical information will not be printed on the labels, however, which indicate which of four categories Riesling falls into--Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet. A fifth category--Off Dry--was part of the original proposal, which has since been winnowed down to four groups.

"Many times consumers are surprised what they'll find when they open a bottle," said Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of Chehalem Wines in Oregon and an IRF director. "This will give them a heads-up."

The proposed acid-to-sugar ratios are as follows:
  • Dry--The ratio between acid and sugar would not exceed 1.0 acid to sugar.
  • Medium Dry--The ratio is 1.0 to 2.0 acid to sugar.
  • Medium Sweet--The ratio here is 2.1 to 4.0 acid to sugar.
  • Sweet--Ratio above 4.1.
With regard to pH, IRF surmised while creating the taste scale that the pH of most Rieslings is between 2.9 on the dry side and 3.4 on the sweet side. The "base" pH of Riesling is 3.1; thus, wines with a lower pH may be moved toward the dry category, and wines with a high pH may earn a spot in one of the sweeter categories.

IRF offers this example:
  • A wine with 7.5 grams of acid could have a maximum sugar level of 15.0 grams. (A ratio of 1 acid: 2 sugar, or Medium Dry). If the pH is above 3.3, it moves to Medium Sweet, and if the pH is as low as 2.9 or lower, the wine moves to Dry.
For the people

Another of the scale's positive attributes--especially given the marketplace confusion surrounding Riesling--is the worldwide applicability of its sliding scale. The directors of IRF alone represent wine industry leaders from France, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States.

"If you have one scale worldwide, then everybody would know what everybody else was talking about," Fegan said. "If you had three different scales, there would be mass confusion."

Gaining popularity

Harvest could be a difficult time to try and introduce a new labeling concept such as the taste scale, IRF directors are hopeful that the idea will catch on.

"It's going to take a while to get the word out …My guess is we're going to see the first smatterings of it a year from now," Petersen-Nedry said. "My personal feeling is that, if the majority of producers were using it five years from now, I would be tickled pink. It's going to be a long project."

'Queen of white wines'

Winemakers such as Petersen-Nedry are confident that increased interest in Riesling is a testament to its status as one of the world's most enduring varietals.

"At long last, people are coming back around to Riesling as an exceptionally serious wine, and, in my opinion, the of queen of white wines. I think it's exceedingly complex and age-worthy, and provides everything for white wines that Pinot Noir and Cabernet do for red wines," he said. "So finally, I think people are appreciating that, and they want that to really embrace Riesling."
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