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Riesling: The Minority Report

Riesling grows on vertiginous slopes above the Mosel river
© Wikimedia | Riesling grows on vertiginous slopes above the Mosel river
In his second column for Wine-Searcher, Tim Atkin MW wonders if riesling is set to remain a wine suited to "the happy few."

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 U.K., 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.

A bunch of riesling grapes and the Riesling scale
© Tom Maack/International Riesling Foundation | A bunch of riesling grapes and the Riesling scale

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

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."

Related story:

The Fall of the British Wine Empire

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  • Comments

    Neil from Leeds wrote:
    23-Aug-2013 at 21:29:48 (GMT)

    The less people that know about Riesling, the better. A trip to Alsace a number of years ago, with a visit to Kuntz -Bas converted me. Keep it quiet and enjoy it alone is my advice.

  • ralph from climax NY wrote:
    21-Aug-2013 at 13:41:49 (GMT)

    I heard once that america's problems are evidenced by its continual buying of over-priced under-delivering automobile passion, bi-partisan system yielding the most embarrassing self-serving dysfunctional congress, and the swelling volume of abysmal pinot grigio sales....(not necessarily in that order...) Excepting some Mersaults and a few more real, better Chablis, i have- over 50 years-, enjoyed more riesling than any other whites.....had stunning dry Aussies(Clare and Edens...),Alsatian mysteries, huge amounts of German (kabinets thru auslese mostly...still drinking those perfectly balanced '71s, rich 75,76's...) and several Wash. examples of varying uses.... One time a few years ago, I and other dinner guests enjoyed a'71 Drohner Hofberger auslese that incredibly went thru 7-8 transformations (in glass over 2 hours) yielding that many different aromas/tastes......petrol, lanolin, fleurs, berries, peaches, flint,mango,vanilla, etc...so much so i forgot the meal itself. Tell me what other white can do that @ modest price. Sadly, german re-emergence w/ 2001, 2003 and 05,07, etc has driven these once reasonable individual vineyard sites almost out of regular value- driven customers price points. I am seeing more mediocre domestic riesling lately, so perhaps i can await another die-off of market interest..... The huge range of dry/sweet and flavor styles from better producers has unbelievable food pairings covering equally huge combinations.....ascending bistro/restaurants are keenly employing those options....to great effect. Be there....

  • Geoff Bolton wrote:
    15-Jul-2013 at 16:26:13 (GMT)

    I think one of the issues might be the bottle shape. The slim, elegant bottle shape looks deceptively small compared to the shorter, but fatter, typical Chardonnay bottle. Perhaps the occasional customer thinks they're not getting 'value for money'. Personally, I don't mind. As has been already said, it leaves more for people who do appreciate it.

  • Dun Cat wrote:
    13-Jul-2013 at 05:25:43 (GMT)

    When I think of Riesling, I think of Alsace, and admit that I preferred Pinot Gris, as has a good friend, both of us having been to Alsace on separate occasions a few years ago. In more recent years the PG has been "too" sweet compared to earlier, although my tastes might have changed. And preferred Riesling. I do like sweet wines, but I want those who clearly, and traditionally have been. SGN and Sauterne, for example. Riesling seemed more dry, but now they seem that "too" sweet! Or maybe like PG, not reliably the way I want them. I loved that clean, true-to-the-grape taste of both varietals, but I'm no longer confident in buying them and above all serving them to friends I want to introduce these too, get them beyond Chardonnay -- beyond, not instead of. And I just don't feel confident in experimenting with these from other countries/regions. A very good article to encourage me, but why doesn't Alsace figure into it?

  • Aylwin Forbes wrote:
    13-Jul-2013 at 00:39:14 (GMT)

    There is some irony in the remark “The consumer feels very safe with chardonnay,” he replied, “especially when it comes to pairing it with food." since Riesling is way more adaptable and interesting in food pairings while Chardonnay has its great moments, but probably in a narrower range. Frankly I am not unhappy if the vast unwashed never "discover" the true brilliance of Riesling; so much left for those that do and the prices won't get too much out of control.

  • Paul Elliott wrote:
    12-Jul-2013 at 21:05:44 (GMT)

    I (like many Amereican consumers) am not adverse to sweet wines (with high residual sugar), as long as there is something else there to counterbalance that sweetness (tannins, acid, minerality or if approriate oak), but many Rieslings (at least the affordable ones) seem one-dimensionally sweet to me. I find that I tend to prefer some Austrian Riesleings because they tend to be a bit more acidic and menerally that some of the German counterparts thta I have tried.

  • Solmon Mengeu wrote:
    12-Jul-2013 at 15:16:17 (GMT)

    An interesting article by Mr. Atkins and some good thoughts about to make Riesling more appealing to the non-wine geek consumer. Yes let's face it, probably Riesling will never be able to go head to head with Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. But I have to agree that simplifying the explanation of the dry/sweetness labels would go a long way to de-mystifying it and making it more mainstream. Starting with dry and then going all the way to very sweet would make it more palatable to everyday drinkers. An important thing to keep in mind as well is that in Germany as well as Austria and in other countries each region gives it a very different flavor. In Germany a Mosel, Rheingau,Pfalz and Baden Riesling all taste quite different and a Claire Valley will taste different than one from the Finger Lakes region. At the same time though I don't think the German ripeness level should be totally scrapped as it does have an appeal for the serious wine lover/collector/connoisseur. In that like other niche products it does that "insider" attraction that will always draw serious and committed wine lovers and collectors. Finally there are other German whites beyond Riesling so please don't write off Grauburgunder as there are good examples being made. In addition we did win both a Decanter Gold and the Sauvignon Blanc International competition for two different Sauvignon Blancs. Cheers! Solomon Mengeu

  • Leigh W Dryden wrote:
    12-Jul-2013 at 10:16:33 (GMT)

    Classically Riesling especially in Australia when it comes from Germany if firstly considered to be very sweet which is not the case as not all Rieslings are created equally as we know. Riesling in Australia has fallen out of favor and has been drowned by a king tide of over ripe grassy driven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and as such many a palate has been destroyed in the process. German wine in general is seen and defined as being all Riesling but as we know there is a lot more than this going all , all be it still 70% of the total wine production. I love my Rieslings but I love the ones that are coming out of Baden and Ahr as they are real game changers for mind. Riesling needs to be revamped and we have to reintroduce the world once more to this wonderful grape so we can all fall in love with it once more.








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