Riesling, way beyond sweet

Columnist June 19

First of two parts

When someone asks me to name my favorite wines, it doesn’t take long for me to mention Riesling. More often than not, I get a quizzical stare and a shake of the head.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

“I don’t like sweet wines,” my acquaintance will say.

For many consumers, Riesling remains saddled with that stigma, a vestige of the insipid, sugary Blue Nun and Black Tower wines from Germany that flooded the market in the 1970s and their cloying American counterparts. We have since turned to more sophisticated (dry) wines, such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Riesling largely has been left behind, though the infamous American sweet tooth and the recent popularity of sweeter wines — moscato, or even sweet reds — would seem to work in its favor.

And yet it’s exceedingly popular among the most dedicated wine fiends. Winemakers, sommeliers, chefs and, yes, wine writers tend to be nuts about it. Keith Goldston, the master sommelier in charge of the wine program at Range in Chevy Chase, devotes an entire page of his extensive wine list to the grape. New York restaurateur Paul Grieco has sponsored a nationwide “Summer of Riesling” each year since 2008, enlisting restaurants and wine bars to pour Riesling by the glass. British writer Stuart Piggott has just published a comprehensive review of Rieslings from around the world, called “Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $25). A Riesling Rendezvous convention is held every three years in Washington state, and an International Riesling Foundation educates consumers about the wines.

Why the disparity? Riesling’s devotees cite the grape’s versatility in producing wines at every point of the spectrum, from bone dry to unctuously sweet. Along the way, the wines can feature a preternatural balance of acid and sugar; they pair amazingly well with a variety of foods, including spicy Asian dishes and ripe, funky cheeses. Riesling typically offers flavors of tree fruits (apricots and peaches, especially) and citrus, yet its expression can differ depending on where it is grown.

Let’s concentrate on the sweetness issue, a stumbling block for so many people. Not all Riesling is sweet. Rieslings from Austria, Australia and New Zealand are almost always dry. If you insist on dry wine, try a Riesling from those countries. 

Germany, the grape’s homeland, produces Rieslings across the spectrum and with notoriously confusing language on the labels. It helps to know the classic progression of Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, terms that describe the ripeness of the grapes when harvested and the sweetness in the wines. (Kabinett is off-dry, with a bit of sweetness; anything Auslese and beyond is essentially a dessert wine.) To accommodate the modern market, many producers make dry, or “Trocken,” wines. (In the United States, these might say “Dry” on the front label and “Trocken” on the back.)

There are easier clues to decipher. Look at the alcohol level: If the label says 8 percent to 10 percent, the wine is likely to have some perceptible sweetness (without necessarily being “sweet”). If it says 11 percent or higher, the wine has been fermented dry. 

And the International Riesling Foundation has promoted a sweetness scale that many producers include on their back labels to designate the wine as dry, medium dry, medium sweet or sweet. That scale helps us know what we’re buying. I applaud it, but it might have drawbacks.

Ernst Loosen, perhaps Germany’s most famous Riesling producer, is skeptical of the
IRF scale, fearing it might prejudice consumers against sweeter Rieslings. 

“If you tell somebody the wine is sweet, they may not buy it,” he says. “But if you pour them a taste, they will often love it and be surprised.” While our brains think dry, our palates often prefer sweet.

Loosen, who was in Washington this month with several German producers whose wines he helps import to the U.S. market, tells the story of a consumer tasting he once did with an associate in Ohio. An older woman tasted one of his dessert wines — containing considerable residual sugar — and proclaimed, “Now, that’s a fine dry wine.”

Loosen’s associate nodded in agreement and said, “Yes, ma’am, that’s Ohio dry.”

Next week: The U.S. Riesling revival.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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