Riesling is one of those categories. Remember the Summers of Riesling of the late 2000s and early 2010s, when bars were geeking out over the grape? Sadly, there was much confusion. Even though there are many Riesling styles, from bone-dry to dessert, too many consumers perceived it as only sweet. Ironically, by the height of the revival, Riesling sales were actually declining.
Now, along comes the American cider revival, with cider having its Riesling moment. And those who promote cider are hearing a frustratingly familiar refrain: I don’t like cider. It’s too sweet. Trust me, there are plenty of super-dry ciders available. If your local watering hole pours only a boring, mass-market sweet cider, demand they pour a drier one.
“It’s the number one issue for cider,” says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. “People are assuming that ciders are much more sweet than they are.”
For that reason, the association is pushing forward with discussions on how to create a universal dryness scale that cidermakers can put on labels, designating dry, semi-dry, semisweet or sweet. The problem is agreeing to a definition of “sweetness” or “dryness.” Can sweetness be measured simply by testing how much residual sugar remains after fermentation? Or do factors such as acidity affect how people perceive sweetness?
One potential scale being debated by cidermakers around the country was developed by the New York Cider Association. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is based on a scale adopted in 2008 by the International Riesling Foundation.
“People are abusing the word ‘dry’ and will continue to. We can’t stop that,” says Jenn Smith, executive director of the New York group. “But New York is going to adopt this scale whether or not the rest of the country does.”
The Orchard-Based Cider Dryness Scale proposed by the New York association takes into account three factors in assessing perceived sweetness: residual sugar, acidity and tannins. (Yes, cider apples, just like wine grapes, have tannins.) A cider might have 8 grams per liter of residual sugar — which sounds “sweet.” But if that cider also has 7 grams per liter of malic acid and 700 parts per million of tannins . . . well, that’s going to be perceived as very dry. Meanwhile, a cider with less residual sugar, but very low acid and little tannins, is going to be perceived as semi-dry or even sweet. For those like me, who got a C in chemistry, this sort of formula may feel a little complicated. But there’s a logic and science behind it: All these factors can be tested and corroborated in a sensory analysis lab.
Cidermakers in New York’s Finger Lakes region such as Redbyrd, Kite & String and South Hill have been using a version of this scale on labels, and a number of other well-known producers throughout the Northeast support it. It appears as a line graph on the back label, with a simple dot or X along the spectrum from dry to sweet. When I open a cider that uses this scale, I’m rarely, if ever, surprised by the level of dryness or sweetness.
But there has been resistance to the scale in other regions. “The New York folks fired the first salvo, but it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says Eric West, publisher of the Cider Guide blog and director of the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, the world’s largest cider judging. The competition already uses a dryness/sweetness scale for its judging categories based solely on residual sugar, using guidelines similar to the European Union — with anything less than 9 grams of residual sugar per liter classified as “dry.”
Dryness scales have become part of a larger discussion about the lexicon of cider. Last fall, the U.S. Association of Cider Makers released a new style guide. There are now “modern” ciders, made from dessert apples commonly found in supermarkets. And then there are “heritage” ciders that have “increased complexity” and “complex aromatics.” Most significantly, heritage ciders use traditional bittersweet or bittersharp cider apples, older heirloom varieties or perhaps even crab apples or foraged wild varieties. A simple reason some cidermakers don’t like New York’s scale is because in many parts of the country, they make modern ciders from dessert apples that do not have much in the way of tannins or acidity, so they fear being labeled as overly sweet.
Another reason for the pushback has been that the New York scale takes into account only ciders made from 100 percent apples, pears, quince or related fruit in the pome family. Many popular ciders across the country have all sorts of added ingredients and flavors: hops, berries, spices, tea, ginger and more.
Finally, a large contingent of cidermakers who have grown out of the craft beer industry remain deeply skeptical of a wine-based approach.
Besides, says Mike Reis, host of the cider podcast Redfield Radio, how well does complex nomenclature work for, say, German Riesling? “How many people walk into a wine shop and understand what trockenbeerenauslese means?”
Jason Wilson is the author of “Godforsaken Grapes.” He is working on a book about the American cider revival.