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How to Put Riesling Fears to Rest

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Are you afraid of Riesling? Do you pause before pulling a cork or twisting a screw cap from a tall, tapered Germanic bottle, wondering whether you are about to release a food-friendly genie who will dazzle your palate, amaze your guests and make your dinner taste sublime -- or whether a treacly sugar monster will pour forth to crash your party and ruin your pork roast?

The International Riesling Foundation would like to help. This wonkish-sounding group is a hodgepodge of journalists, wine promoters and winemakers who are trying to cajole Riesling producers around the globe into employing a little truth in advertising by labeling their wines to show whether they are dry, sweet or somewhere in between.

Riesling is experiencing a boomlet in the United States, but if it is really to catch on, it must overcome two obstacles: American consumers tend to prefer dry wines, meaning wines that are not sweet. And American consumers tend to believe -- incorrectly -- that Riesling is always sweet.

Riesling is a remarkably versatile grape. It can produce a dry, racy aperitif or unctuous dessert nectar and performs beautifully along the entire sweetness spectrum. But that versatility is both a virtue and a curse. Often when we buy a bottle, we don't know how sweet it is until we open it with dinner. The frustration (and embarrassment) comes from accidentally serving a dessert wine with the entree.

As a result, many consumers stick with chardonnay.

The International Riesling Foundation was the brainchild of California-based wine writer Dan Berger and Jim Trezise, director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. Last summer, the group proposed criteria to label a wine's dryness based on its residual sugar content, acid levels and pH balance. That information -- of interest only to the nerdiest wine geeks and German winemakers named "Doktor" -- would be conveyed to the consumer with a simple graphic on the label, showing the wine as "dry," "medium-dry," "medium-sweet" or "sweet."

This is a worthy idea. Informed consumers will be less wary of Riesling and more likely to experiment with it if they have a clearer idea of what type of wine they are about to taste. Berger told me only eight wineries have indicated an interest in using the scale, however, so for now we are on our own.

Fortunately, there are clues we can use to determine what style of Riesling is likely to be in the bottle, but they vary widely by wine region.

Rieslings from Austria, New Zealand and Australia are invariably dry, except for dessert wines labeled "late harvest." U.S. Rieslings tend to be slightly sweet; a few helpful wineries specify "dry," "semi-dry," or "off-dry" (the latter two indicating "slightly sweet"). Rieslings from France's Alsace region also vary from wine to wine and offer no clue on the label, except for "vendange tardives" (late harvest) and the rare, unctuously sweet "sélection de grains nobles."

And then there's Germany, Riesling's homeland and producer of the world's greatest Rieslings, many of which walk a delicate tightrope between sugar and acid, sweet and dry. Much of the consumer reluctance for Riesling stems from Germany's reputation for sweet wines and its incomprehensible labeling laws. To cater to consumer demand for dry wines, some producers began labeling their driest Rieslings "trocken" (dry) or "halb-trocken" (half-dry), though those terms have fallen out of favor, and many producers now simply use the English word "dry" on labels exported to the United States.

Many Riesling fanatics scoff at the trend toward dry Rieslings. They argue that the key to Riesling is not its sweetness but the balance between sugar and the grape's natural acidity. The "fruity" style dismissed by many consumers as too sweet makes an excellent partner to many foods, including semi-soft stinky cheeses and savory entrees that include a touch of sweetness in the sauce or seasoning. The sweetness also pairs well with the panoply of sweet, salty and spicy flavors in many Asian cuisines.

These arguments are correct, and they are good reasons for Riesling-phobes to overcome their fear. They also miss the point: that consumers want to know what type of wine they're getting when they pluck a bottle off the store shelf.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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