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What’s wrong with Riesling?

41 comments

Nothing, actually, except that so few Americans want to drink it. I know, I know, some writers are touting a new interest in Riesling. Asimov, over at The Pour, wrote that Riesling is finally getting some respect. The Wine Economist just last week wrote about “Riesling’s Rising Tide,” and if there’s one white white that gives sommeliers wet dreams (can I say that in a family publication?), it’s Riesling.

Recently, Jon Bonné more accurately wrote about Riesling’s “serious baggage — the [consumer’s] fear of sweetness, perhaps the fear of insubstantiality.” “[P]eople are not stepping up to the bar to demand a glass of Riesling,” he pointed out. That accords with my own observations.

I personally love a good glass of Riesling. When I go to a nice restaurant or bar, very often it’s my appetizer wine — either that, or Albariño or sparkling wine. Yet I always ask the barkeep or sommelier if the Riesling is dry or close to it, because I really don’t care for an off-dry Riesling except under very strict circumstances, and never for a first drink of the evening, when I want something mouthwateringly crisp, clean and dry.

I used to drink a lot more Riesling than I do now. There was a store down on Bryant Street, South of Market, called Connoisseur’s Wine Imports, that specialized in German and Alsatian wines. I went there several times a week to pick up a bottle. In my tasting diary I have notes on a 1983 Erdener Treppchen Spatlese, an ‘83 Riesling “Les Eglantiers” from Heim, in Alsace, ‘86 Riesling from Domaine Lucien Albrecht (also Alsace), and a Spatlese Riesling from Weingut Kanzemer, a M-S-R that cost all of $7.95. In 1989 I thoroughly enjoyed an ‘83 Piesporter Goldtropchen Auslese that knocked me out, it was so pure. I could write thousands words on all the rest of the Rieslings I’ve known and loved.

These days I don’t get to taste a lot of European Riesling because I’m so swamped with California wine, but I do taste a lot of California Riesling. I’m not a huge fan. I’ve given my highest scores to late-harvest Rieslings, of course: Navarro, Arrowood, Greenwood Ridge, Beringer, Grgich Hills, but we’re not talking about sweeties, we’re talking dry to off-dry. In that category, Pey-Marin, Smith-Madrone, Navarro, Trefethen, Esterlina and Stony Hill lead the pack, more recently joined by Tangent. These are wines that need no oak, have vital acidity and are clean and racy, often showing Riesling’s diesel fuel smell and peach flower notes. Good as they are, though, they don’t seem to have the complexity of Germany or Alsace.

I don’t know how to popularize Riesling with consumers. Sommeliers, like I said, love to push it, but most Americans have never met a sommelier and never will. Restaurants are pushing it, but usually they’re the kind of restaurants that have sommeliers; see the preceding sentence. Maybe American producers need a Riesling Association to promote and market the variety and wine, but it’s hard for wineries in different states to work together. Hell, it’s hard for wineries in the same state to work together. Here in California, there are enough Riesling producers to organize and do something. Maybe they could team up with producers in Oregon and Washington and form a West Coast Riesling Lover’s Association. Just saying.

  1. It’s the finest white wine grape variety. Hand’s down. In my mind, there’s no question about that and no other white wine grape can even touch it. Which of course isn’t to say that other grapes can’t make amazing white wine; it’s to say that in my mind Riesling is the greatest of them all.

  2. Steve,

    I’ve always believed that Riesling is one of the great wines of the world, not a great white one. I’ve spent my entire adult life pushing Riesling and I’m very positive about Riesling, having just planted some new acres. Tough times were 20-25 years ago – that was depressing, not today. Because many of the 70’s and 80’s Rieslings were so sweet we lost a generation or two; if I had a nickel for every time I heard “I don’t like Riesling, it’s too sweet” I’d be rich. I see young people coming to Riesling in a new and positive way. It also helps that most of the poorer quality Riesling producers have abandoned their effort and we’re left with a smaller core of wineries that know and care about the varietal.
    Stu Smith

  3. Steve,
    You’ve got to try some NY Rieslings! It will totally spoil you for Riesling from any other state. The best are dry, crisp and really refreshing with moderate to lower alcohol levels (which I enjoy.) I’m also a bit biased since I went to school there :)

  4. TomHill says:

    Yup, Steve. Riesling just doesn’t seem to get the respect that it deserves in Calif. And GWT as well. I’ve been pretty impressed w/ some of those Alsatian varietals coming out of the SantaBarbara area…like Chein, Ojai, and Claibourne&Churchill. Had last week the Ojai JR ’07 KickOnRanch. At release, it had this schreechy acidity that was like running your fingernails down a chalkboard (you’re probably too young to remember chalkboards!!). With a yr & hlf of age, it had developed a beautiful Mosel/gout de petrol character…one of the best Calif JR I’ve had in some time.
    Alas….too many are made in an off-dry style that can get a bit tiring. But if they have a high acidity…they can develop into amazing wines with age.
    TomHill

  5. Ah, Steve, the Riesling producers have risen up and formed the International Riesling Foundation, and attempted to help you find your dry Riesling by developing a scale, which lots of producers put on their back labels (Jekel was among the first, but now there are lots, with more all the time). You can see it and learn more about it here: http://www.drinkriesling.com/tastescale/ Dan Berger worked with producers to develop the scale, in his usual meticulous way.

  6. Steve,

    While you were having fun at the Rutherford Dust tasting, I, and several hundred of my nearest and dearest, were up in Seattle at the Riesling Rendezvous. I had to choose between two of my favorite events and this year, it was Riesling that got the nod.

    Unfortunately, this remarkable three-day event only comes around every two, or maybe now, every three years, and so you will have to wait. Hundreds of Rieslings in every style in a series of big walkaround tastings and smaller sit down tastings, from dry to sweet, from young to old, from Germany and Austria NZ and Oz and making every stop in between like NY, MI, CA, OR and WA.

    Because you let a certain Mr. Gregutt have the WA franchise at Wine Enthusiast, you miss out on the very exceptional Rieslings being made up there, and also in OR. Names like Ch. Ste. Michelle (in collaboration with Ernst Loosen), Poet’s Leap, Pacific Rim, Chehalem, Tantalus (Canadian and very good) all must fall in Paul’s lap. Get him to send a bottle or two.

    Riesling is not just for sweet drinkers anymore. In Germany, over 90% of the Riesling consumed falls within the style known as “Trocken”, which means RS under 0.9% (9 g/L). Those wines, which also are required to have high levels of natural acidity to bear the name, are very good first course wines with lots of choices like scallops, smoked salmon, crab cakes, even rillettes because of the way the acidity cuts the fat.

    CA Riesling, however, is a more difficult proposition because we have a harder time getting the balance of acid and ripeness correct. But, just as the sparkling wine makers have moved further and further towards the coolest coastal locations, so too can Riesling makers. I know it is tougher for you to do a Riesling review than for me because I can cover all of the West Coast, but there you are in NYC plotting out WE’s next year. Why not devote part of an issue to Rieslings from all over North America, including Canada (both Niagara and Okanagan). I am going to do mine in my September issue. Let me show you the way. :-}

  7. Steve,

    Well, I am not sure that Riesling is not doing that well. The category has increased double digits every year for the past 4 years now. It seems that new Riesling brands are popping out all the time!

    You might be interested to know that there is an association of Riesling producers called the International Riesling Foundation: http://www.drinkriesling.com/ that has developped a Riesling tasting scale (we use it on all our bottles since 2008). The foundation is a Washington State non profit and welcomes all riesling producers to join.

    Thank you for giving Riesling some love!

    Nicolas
    Pacific Rim Winemakers

  8. I just got back from a wine tasting trip to Oregon, ostensibly for Pinot, but found myself pretty impressed by the local Rieslings. Lazy River & R Stuart are two that stood out.

  9. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons that riesling has struggled to take hold in the US. A few of the big reasons have to be that you don’t know what style you’ll get – dry (which most really aren’t), off-dry, or sweet. German labels are in German and can be difficult to decipher. Another revealing tidbit that Steve H. mentions is that he, and presumably others, looks to riesling as his appetizer wine. A fine riesling, whether dry or sweet, can be as grand and complex and long lived as any fine red wine, and more than just an appetizer wine. And finally, American riesling has been commoditized by a well known gargantuan producer. All these reasons have kept riesling confined to an undeserving place.

  10. Andrea Fulton-Higgins says:

    Ahhhh, Riesling! One of the four Nobel Grapes, and for good resaon, even if folks don’t know it.
    Please get your self a bottle of Willamette Valley Vineyards 2008 Riesling. (not the “dry” version). Made with susse reserve and delish at 10% alc.!!!

    The best way to get wine lovers to understand Rieslings place @ the table is to show them w/ food.
    Get some shrimp and some sliced NY steak.
    Have dippings sauces of a burre blanc, a garlicky pesto, a sushi style (wasabi, ginger, soy), and a really spicy BBQ sauce.
    4 wines: a rich buttery Chardonnay, a Riesling, a Gamay Beaujolais & a good Cabernet.
    Taste all the wines first. most will prefer the cab and the chard and dismiss the Riesling and the Gamay as “too sweet/too light”
    But the chard, which shines with the butter sauce, falls apart w/ the Asian sauce and the Pesto. And while the steak by itself is great w/ the cab, the wine loses it’s depth when dipped in the BBQ sauce.

    It is a sight to behold, as you see the lightbulbs go off in the room when folks realize what fantastic wines Rieslings (and Gamays) are.

    Oh, and btw, Riesling is the best beverage to combat “dry mouth”.
    (You know what I’m talking about, right?)

    And, finally, you can drink it all day, and not get smashed.

  11. I actually think that most Americans are pushed off by Rieslings because they are not scored like the big reds are. It is sad to say but it will take someone like RP or WS to step up and give 98 points or higher to a Riesling (not including the Single Berry Select as Americans will not drop $200 on a 375ml..I will and do!) to get the attention Rieslings deserves. I try to tell people and friends that red wines are great but my heart will always go back to the Rieslings. I’m from Seattle and grew up with them but since moving to Rome Italy, I have had to include a case of Washington Riesling on my trips back. I think I would be more mad if the airlines lost my case of Riesling over my luggage.

  12. Well stated Steve; even among self-proclaimed wine enthusiasts drumming up interest for Riesling can be challenging. At the recent WBC10 (Wine Bloggers Conference) in Walla Walla I attempted to pour dry Rieslings from the Dundee Hills here in Oregon and found it a serious sell just to be able to pour free wine into the attendees glasses. As often and as loudly as I could say “no it is not sweet these are dry wines” it was still a trying task to get people to try them. Hey wait a minute you were there and I do not remember you trying any Riesling, but then it was probably not time for your appetizer wine.

  13. Hi Steve,

    As always, good writing on provocative subjects. I have written about Riesling on a number of occasions and find it a very complex and compelling wine. I love blue slate minerality and the diesel fuel notes you mentioned, which is off-putting to so many until it is understood that this comes from a grape and not a fuel tank. And the older the better. As with many age-worthy wines, Riesling develops great depth and complexity with age.

    Sommeliers love Riesling because of its versatility with food but not unlike many other great wines, look at how long it takes for America to not only discover but embrace such treasures. Sadly even Syrah is not getting the respect, or shelf space, it deserves compared to other arguably lesser wines. But here, as in Riesling, unfortunately California just doesn’t measure up to the European counterparts and how could it? Everything is vastly different from terrior to winemaking style, to philosophy. California does a lot of things right and I have even enjoyed a few Syrah based wines from this fine state, but never a Riesling. If you find something worthy of an Alsatian or Mosel (they have dropped the MSR designation a while back) please share it with us!

    Warmest Regards,

    David Boyer
    classof1855.com

  14. Bradley says:

    What about New York Rieslings?!

  15. I can’t tell you how many times recently I’ve told people that I love riesling and they give me a funny look saying that they used to drink it when they thought they only liked sweet wine. Events like the Riesling Rendevous in Washington in early July are starting to showcase the grape in the U.S. but it certainly is a grape that struggle from being either a non wine drinker’s grape or an ultra wine geek grape and just can’t seem to find the middle ground. I would love a riesling ‘support group’

  16. A well argued article. By contrast, the recent one in the Decanter on dry German Rieslings was full of mistakes. Such articles don’t help. http://www.schiller-wine.blogspot.com/2010/07/unfortunate-report-about-dry-german.html

  17. “Good as they are, though, they don’t seem to have the complexity of Germany or Alsace.”

    Would that we too (in California) could experiment with the “complexity” component that comes with chaptalization, Steve.

  18. While I enjoy Riesling as much as anyone, I still get burnt often enough that my wife rolls her eyes every time I bring one home. Riesling is like a box of chocolates, you never know……! For everything popular, there have to be things that are unpopular. This is Riesling’s role.

    Many incarnations of the variety are not versatile with food and languish in the cellar waiting for the right moment. The one moment that never fails is a beautifully aged Riesling, up to the sweetness level of Auslese, served as an aperitif. The last and best I had was from Barney R.’s cellar at his memorial.

  19. Stgeve, do you think the Intntl Riesling Federation is on the right track with their attempt to inform the consumer via a back label sweetness scale? They are getting participating wineries to rate their wine on a simple dry to sweet scale and then giving a visual indicator (a pointer) on the back label.

    Think this might remove some of the “consumer’s fear?”

  20. Sherman, I don’t know that much about it but from what I’ve heard it’s a great idea.

  21. Morton, yes, but you know better than I that a great Riesling is awesome — dry, off-dry of sweet. You just have to know what you’re getting.

  22. I hope the recent marketing push for Riesling works. I love that wine, I really do, but it has such problems!

  23. Bradley, I haven’t tasted many, but I think if you go to Wine Enthusiast’s free database, you’ll find their reviews, and I know my NY colleagues like them.

  24. MacDaddy, I hear you. The bloggers seemed to gravitate to more popular reds and whites. I was there, yes, but I did VERY little tasting as that wasn’t my priority. I would like to learn more about OR and WA Rieslings so I could write more about them. Of course, my wonderful colleague, Paul Gregutt, literally wrote the book on these wines.

  25. Santo, I hope and pray that RP and WS are no longer the only ones that can canonize a wine to popularity. In fact, I’m sure that’s no longer true.

  26. Andrea– fantastic wisdom. Thank you.

  27. Scott, I knew when I wrote “appetizer wine” I’d get jumped on. I admit to needing education about this absolutely noble variety and I hope someday to have the time and attention span to devote to it.

  28. Nicolas thanks for sharing. I”m just back from our editorial conference at Wine Enthusiast and Riesling was a huge topic of conversation.

  29. Charlie, importantly I do not “let” Paul Gregutt have the WA and Or franchise, he has earned it, he knows more than I could ever, he’s been at it for a long time, and Paul is in fact the Dean of Pacific Northwest wine writers. So not to argue, but you should know better. I take your point, though, about the great wines up there. I wish I had the time to taste ALL the wines of the world, instead of flying in like certain famous winemakers we know, tasting the “top” wines, and then pronouncing on who’s who and what’s what.

  30. Stu, I know about Smith Madrone. I utterly respect what you do. If you sold stock I’d buy shares. Bless you and I hope that great Cali Rieslings find their rightful place in the market.

  31. Dude, an amazing statement from you and one that will set you apart from your already blazing career. Congratulations, and keep exploring Riesling!

  32. Steve, a bit of tongue in cheek, my man. Paul is, indeed, a very fine and knowledgable writer. He has the PNW turf, and that is why you do not get to taste a wide variety of West Coast Rieslings. There are some good ones here in CA, but we are still working on the model.

    I agree with Stuart Smith that some of the weak, sweet, dull, soft Rieslings have gone away, but when one looks at the 1.0 TAs and 3.00 pHs on the top wines at Riesling Rendezvous, it becomes clear that we need to look to cooler and cooler locations with the right soils and exposures to unlock the full potential of Riesling here in CA.

  33. Thanks for that, my friend!

    I’ve been a member of the converted for a long time now, and if people don’t buy it in the short term I suppose it means mroe for me at cheaper prices! :)

  34. Norm Gary says:

    Little late getting to this article.

    One of the best rieslings I ever tasted was ’03 Herman Wiemer, Reserve Dry from NY’s Finger Lakes. If I could find a California riesling that good, I would buy it by the case.

  35. Steve, thanks for “letting me” have my turf! It was a pleasure, as always, to break bread and share thoughts at the conference. As for those elusive WA and OR rieslings, anytime you like, we’ll pop some for you.

  36. Thanks Paul. I’m also happy to share our great Cali Cabs and Pinots with you!!

  37. One of my favorite surprises at a Pinot Noir tasting, is occasionally a certain Riesling producer from Marin will freshen a pallet or two with a cold pour of their latest vintage, and then inconspicuously put it back under their table. Riesling breaks should be REQUIRED at California Pinot Noir eventsin order to balance the flabby 15% alcohol bombs…baumes.

  38. Mike: I hear you!

  39. Maybe if US winemaker’s would make dry Riesling rather than the off-dry stuff, folks would take to it more. This is exactly the case I’m finding with Gewurzt. Allow the juice to go dry, bump it with a partial ml and maybe some oak chips. Of course harvesting Rieslings with lower PH and low brix is, IMHO, a must.

  40. Randy, I totally agree. I always prefer a dry Gewurz from California to the off-dry kind.

  41. Brooklyn Winery says:

    Thanks for a great post Steve! We love Rieslings and are looking forward to trying our hand at crafting some here in New York!

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