A Riesling Revival?

A hundred years ago the most treasured and expensive wines in the world were not the great reds from Burgundy and Bordeaux, they were wonderful Rieslings from Germany.  Since then Riesling has fallen on hard times in the market, although its status among wine critics and cult collectors has not wavered.  Now there is change in the air.  Have we entered a Riesling Renaissance?

Riesling Rendezvous

Woodinville, Washington was the center of the Riesling world for a few days in July when Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen hosted a program called “Riesling Rendezvous” that brought together more than 200 producers, critics and industry representatives from around the world. (Chateau Ste Michelle let me attend to do research for my next book – thank you CSM for your support!).  This was the second Riesling Rendezvous conference and a third round is planned for 2010.

Chateau Ste Michelle is the largest Riesling producer in the United States – more than 700,000 cases of their Columbia Valley Riesling are released each year along with a number of other Riesling wines that range from a Dry Riesling all the way to a deliciously sticky Ice Wine.

Dr. Loosen is a famous Mosel producer that has a decade-long relationship with CSM – they jointly produce a Washington Riesling called Eroica and work together in other ways – so their Old World – New World partnership makes this event a natural.  Ernie Loosen (as everyone calls him) is a great ambassador for Riesling.  He reminds me of the glass artist Dale Chihuly – funny, flamboyant, affable and dead serious about his work.  We tasted a lot of wine at the event, including one that Ernie made in 1983 that still sings; quality Riesling is built to last.

The Curse of the Blue Nun

Riesling Rendezvous operated on at least two levels.  The top level was a celebration of Riesling in all its diverse forms.  The $50 ticket to the Grand Tasting on Sunday is one of the great values in the wine world, in my opinion, as dozens of producers poured their best wines on the Chateau grounds and the CSM chefs prepared finger foods to accompany them.  Each of the trade sessions I attended included tastings of great Rieslings brought from afar by the producers.  Honestly, no one could come away unimpressed with the state of Riesling wine today and the commitment that winemakers around the world have to this great varietal.

The state of the Riesling wine economy is another matter.  The Riesling market went all to hell in the 1970s when German producers pumped out lots of low quality wines to try to appeal to a mass market (a market defined here in the US, I suppose, by the big jugs of sweet California “Rhine” wine that filled the supermarket shelves).  They made the fatal mistake of devaluing their brand.  Riesling’s reputation suffered and it has been a long struggle to rebuild it.  Perhaps this is Riesling’s moment, now that everyone has grown tired by simple over-oaked Chardonnay and thin Pinot Grigio. Perhaps this is under-appreciated Riesling’s time to shine?  Certainly the sales numbers are trending up, although a relatively small segment of the market accounts for most of the sales.

But Riesling has an identity crisis and a lot of the discussions centered around this fact.  There is no one Riesling wine, as we learned through the tastings, because Riesling reflects it terroir so faithfully.  Wines from different vineyard areas (or subject to different cellar choices) taste very different.  This diversity is one of Riesling’s most appealing characteristics, but it makes it hard to sell to confused and uncertain buyers.

Consumers as a group tend to think of Rieslings in terms of a single characteristic: its sweetness. This is a shame because there is much more to wine than sweet versus dry, but it is Riesling’s particular burden, its  Blue Nun curse.

Rieslings are sweet, of course, but they also are dry.  I tasted wines that ranged from a few grams per liter of residual sugar (very dry) to perhaps fifty times that.  But the key to Riesling isn’t dry-sweet, as Pierre Trimbach said on the first day, it is balance – the balance of sugar and acid and the other critical elements of the wine.  The technical problem is to produce balanced wines of whatever degree of alcohol and residual sugar.  The economic problem is to communicate to consumers the characteristics of the wine so that they can buy it with confidence.  I would say that the Riesling Rendezvous showed that producers are closer to solving the technical problem than the economic one.

Riesling and Thai Food: How Many Stars?

Consumers want to know what’s inside the bottle and it is particularly hard to explain this with Riesling.  The nature of the wine isn’t as transparent to buyers as the glass bottle it comes in.  The German wine labeling rules classify wines by their sugar levels, which reveals something about the wine, but that isn’t as useful as you might think since two wines with similar residual sugar levels can have different tastes depending upon the acid balance, the type of sugar (some forms of sugar taste sweeter than others) and of course the myriad other factors associated with wine.  The German code gives some information, but it doesn’t solve the problem. In a way, in fact, it might define the problem because it defines Riesling by its sweetness.

New World labels aren’t much help either.  Only a few of them give technical data that would help a geek like me figure out what’s inside.  Some use vague descriptors (what does “off dry” mean and why is this one producer’s off dry so much sweeter than another’s?) but most just make you guess what style of wine you have before you.  Guess wrong three times in a row and I predict you will stop buying Riesling wine for a while.

A producer group, the International Riesling Foundation, is trying to address this problem by creating a clear and simple system that would tell consumers what to expect – something perhaps like the star system commonly used in Thai restaurants.  You know how it works: one star is mild, five stars is very very hot.  The star system makes people more comfortable ordering food at Asian restaurants, although there is obviously more to Thai food than just heat (and more to Riesling than residual sugar).  It’s worth a try, I suppose.  Even a trustworthy dry-to-sweet graphic index would probably help in the marketplace.  Sake producers (see below) are working on this problem, too, although I wouldn’t recommend their particular descriptors (a translation problem?).

This is how different styles of Sake are described on www.sake.com

This is how different styles of Sake are described on http://www.sake.com

I hope that Riesling producers can find a way to make the complex characteristics of their wines clearer and therefore more appealing to confused consumers.  Conferences like the Riesling Rendezvous are a useful way to get that conversation going. There is a natural tendency, however, for such gatherings to “preach to the choir” and focus on the well informed specialist market that already exists rather than the potential market of former Chardonnay drinkers looking for a more interesting wine, who could be drawn to Riesling if they understood it a bit better. I think this educational mission is the real challenge for Riesling Rendezvous III: thinking beyond today’s market to tomorrow’s.

I am hopeful that the International Riesling Foundation will make progress in this regard, but the collective action problem is significant here. It won’t be easy to get dozens of producers of differing size, style and market position to agree to standards and then implement them uniformly. It is more likely, I think, that a few of the big brands like CSM will lead the way and define the image of Riesling in consumer minds.  Others will follow or not and so the future of Riesling will unfold.

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