One of the paradoxes of the wine world is the discrepancy between wine writers’ and consumers’ love for Riesling. Wine writers love it. Every time I have dinner with a group of my wine writing colleagues, someone invariably orders Riesling, usually with unanimous agreement from others. When I dine with ‘normal’ people, my suggestion for Riesling is always voted down in favor of Chardonnay.
Judging from admittedly unscientific data–talking to friends and associates both in and out of the wine trade–Riesling does not appear to be poised to overtake Chardonnay as the consumer’s first choice for white wine. This contradictory pattern is particularly odd since most wine merchants with whom I speak say that the critics’ opinions and their reviews of wines are very important for sales.
Riesling’s Spectrum of Style Confuses Consumers
So why then isn’t the public listening to what we wine writers say on this subject? (Maybe they don’t listen to anything we write–but let’s not go there just yet). I think the problem lies with Riesling’s spectrum of style, from cuttingly dry to almost syrupy sweet.
There’s rarely an indication on a Riesling label that accurately describes what lies in the bottle. Some California or New York Riesling indicate ‘dry’ or ‘off dry’ on the label, but those terms are subject to individual interpretation by the winemaker. Even with the detailed information on the German label, listing the level of ripeness at which the grapes were picked, from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese, the range within a particular class is vast. One producer’s Kabinett could easily be labeled as Spatlese by another producer.
Riesling from Alsace is an excellent example of the problem the consumer faces. Side by side on a shelf, a consumer finds any of the excellent Rieslings from Trimbach, with their characteristic racy edginess, and the equally enjoyable but plusher and sweeter ones from Schlumberger, another reputable producer. The consumer must know each producer’s style or be shocked after the bottle has been opened.
That’s a lot to ask, and even when consumers learn to connect a few producers with sweetness levels, the situation still inhibits experimentation with unknown producers. Peter Munro, the winemaker at Matura Winery, one of New Zealand’s leading producers, told me that he will not order Riesling unless he knows the producer precisely because of this vast variation of style. If he, an experienced winemaker, is leery of an unfamiliar producer’s wine, it is understandable that the average consumer will shy away from taking a risk.
No matter how much we writers praise Riesling, one taste of a sweet one when you are expecting a dry one with dinner is likely to put off a customer forever.
Ernest Loosen, one of Germany’s respected producers, told me several years ago that he thought the Riesling revolution would start in Washington state (where he is collaborating with Chateau Ste. Michelle to produce a lovely Riesling, ‘Eroica’), and not his native Germany, the country most famous for Riesling. Washington does produce excellent examples of Riesling, but these wines still suffer from indefinite sweetness. After having tasted Rieslings from all over Australia for the past several years, my vote goes to that country as the place that has the potential to revolutionize how consumers view Riesling. Sadly, the Aussies may be on the verge of blowing the opportunity.
Australia’s advantage is–so far–a singularly consistent style of Riesling that is, specifically, dry. That’s not to imply they are cookie cutter wines. They’re not. Australian Rieslings have captivating differences between them–they vary from citric to mineral in different regions–but their superb acidity is a common, unifying, characteristic.
Given that Riesling thrives in cool climates (Germany, Alsace, Austria, and upstate New York), this grape is a surprising choice for Australia, which is pretty hot in general. Australia’s climate routinely results in ripe grapes that have lost inherent acidity (as any fruit ripens, the sugar levels increase and the sour acidity is lost). The origins of the grape in Australia are not known precisely, but I suspect the influx of German immigrants to the Barossa in the mid 19th century brought their ancestral variety with them, planted it and enjoyed the wine.
Part of the reason Australian winemakers have succeeded with Riesling is their experience with acidification or what they call, ‘acid adjustment.’ Since most of Australia’s wine growing regions are hot and deliver ripe grapes with low levels of acid, winemakers there have perfected this technique in which they add tartaric acid to the grape must at the time of fermentation. Even the French, who rarely need to worry about overripe grapes, resort to this technique in very hot years, such as 2003. According to Gérard Cherrier, the super talented régisseur (winemaker) at Château de Sancerre in France, the addition of tartaric acid to the grape must prior to or during fermentation–as he did with his 2003 Sancerre Rouge–is impossible to detect on the palate, whereas addition of acid after fermentation distorts the wine’s balance and makes it harsh and unappealing.
There are areas in Australia, such as the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia or the Great Southern region of Western Australia, where dramatic day-night temperature variation (the temperature at night drops considerably) allows the Riesling grape to hold its acidity and makes acid adjustment unnecessary. Producers in these areas (Annie’s Lane, Jeffrey Grosset, Wakefield in Clare, Wolf Blass in Eden, and Plantagenet in Western Australia to name just a few) make stunning consistently dry Rieslings. Hence, Australia has to potential to become identified with dry Riesling the way New Zealand has become identified with a singular style of Sauvignon Blanc.
Americans Talk Dry but Drink Sweet
Some Australian producers are starting to introduce a sweeter style of Riesling for the American market, a trend which I fear could promote confusion among consumers who were just starting to realize that Australia was one of the few places that regularly delivered dry Riesling.
Market research indicates that, although many Americans claim to prefer dry wines, they actually gravitate to sweeter wines. Producers can hardly be blamed for trying to satisfy that market. (Just look at Moet & Chandon’s White Star Champagne, the best selling Champagne in the US; nowhere on the label does it indicate that it is sweeter than Brut Champagne). But I would encourage those Australian producers to differentiate the sweeter style on the label and not label those Rieslings with specific geographic indicators, such as Clare or Eden Valley or South Australia or Western Australia, that are becoming firmly associated in consumers’ minds with dry Riesling. In reality, how many people drinking sweeter Riesling care about the specific origin of the grapes? Maybe producers could omit the country of origin from the label and eliminate the potential for confusion entirely.
July 3, 2007