On a long plane ride a few years ago, I asked a bunch of fellow wine writers to name their favorite grapes. No prizes for guessing which varieties came top: pinot noir was our chosen red, while riesling led the whites. If you’re a wine lover, you probably agree with our picks. If you’re a casual wine consumer, you may well be baffled by them.
Most ordinary punters prefer other grapes. To them, pinot is thin, expensive and unreliable, while riesling is tart, acidic and confusing. Cabernet and merlot are more popular than the Burgundian red, while riesling comes way down the list of chosen white varietals after chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, viognier, chenin blanc and “white” zinfandel.
The refusal of the general public to embrace riesling is galling to wine geeks. We love its transparency, its ability to express nuances of soil type, its thrilling vivacity, balance and poise. But serve a great riesling to a bunch of consumers and, invariably, they don’t get it. The Anything But Chardonnay movement is flawed, not least because (at its best) chardonnay is a wonderful grape. But it’s also suited to most people’s palates.
In fact, Anything But Riesling (ABR) would be closer to the truth. If you think I’m exaggerating for effect, consider one fact: in the UK, a place where top Mosel and Rheingau wines once sold at the same price as First Growth Bordeaux, now we drink more German pinot grigio – or grauburgunder – than riesling. What could be more damning?
Fight or Flight?
There are two possible responses here. One is to conclude that no-one ever lost money underestimating public taste – think Yellow Tail – and that riesling, like jazz music and sweetbreads, will never have mass appeal. The second is to think of ways to make Riesling more popular and accepted.
At a recent tasting put on by Aussie wine giant, Jacob’s Creek, a business that knows how to brand and sell booze, I asked chief winemaker Bernard Hickin why the company’s chardonnays outsold its rieslings by a factor of ten to one. “The consumer feels very safe with chardonnay,” he replied, “especially when it comes to pairing it with food. That’s not the case with riesling.”
Not being able to pronounce the name of the grape is only part of the problem. A much bigger issue is style. Is the riesling in your glass dry, medium or sweet? Light, medium or full-bodied? And what about acidity levels? These, too, can vary alarmingly, underlining Hickin’s point about that sense of unease on the part of consumers.
The International Riesling Foundation’s sugar guidelines are a worthy attempt to simplify things with a sweetness scale to inform the consumer of the likely taste profile of the wine inside the bottle, but they are pretty confusing for a non-specialist. What would the woman pushing her trolley through the aisles of Walmart or Tesco make of “sugar to acid ratios” and “shifts due to pH”? Not a lot, I reckon. No wonder chardonnay (soft, fruity and often oaky) and pinot grigio (bland, innocuous and appealingly Italian-sounding) are much more popular.
The association with sweetness is the biggest drawback. We may number great Mosel Kabinett and Spätlese among the world’s outstanding wine styles, but to the uninitiated, medium-sweet rieslings, however good, belong on the same shelf as bog-standard Liebfraumilch and Niersteiner Gutes Domtal.
Significantly, Jacob’s Creek found that sales increased markedly when it included the word "dry” on labels of its Classic Riesling. Consumers may like residual sugar in wine, but when it comes to riesling, they are loathe to admit it.
Keep it simple stupid
So, a first step towards a greater global acceptance of riesling (it does fine in Germany, Australia and Austria, thank you very much) would be a simplification of those IRF “sugar guidelines.” How about dry, off-dry, medium dry, medium sweet, sweet and very sweet without the confusion of sugar to acid ratios? Put those on the label and consumers would have some idea of what they’re drinking. They are certainly easier to understand than Auslese Trocken.
Two further things might help, both of them based on tasting, or rather drinking. One of riesling’s main attributes is its ability to age. Selling wines with bottle development – those famously toasty, kerosene-like characters – would help people to understand that. The other focus – and the promotional body, Wines of Germany, has grasped this – should be on pairing riesling with food. Chardonnay is much more of a stand-alone wine; riesling needs partners. Its diversity and acidity make it extremely food-friendly. We need to emphasize that.
Will this help riesling to become more popular than chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio? Don’t hold your breath. There’s a lot of prejudice to overcome first, as well as a lot of ignorance. And even then, I suspect that riesling’s array of flavors are not suited to mass appeal. To paraphrase what the French author Stendhal said in the dedication to one of his novels, riesling is a grape “for the happy few."