Riesling: How Sweet It Is?

There is no doubt about it: Riesling is one of the world’s great wines. I think my students were slightly stunned by the eight Riesling wines (ranging from very dry to an ice wine) that they sampled at a recent tasting I organized for them.

Riesling drinkers know “how sweet it is!” (to borrow Jackie Gleason’s signature phrase). The wines are good and good value, too. Some of the best American Rieslings (wines like Poet’s Leap or Chateau Ste Michelle’s Eroica) sell for  only about $20. What a deal!

But the reason these great wines are great bargains is that the demand for them, while on the rise, is really not so great. Consumers by and large are afraid to buy Riesling. They don’t know how sweet they will taste or if they will like them. The “how sweet is it?” question and the “how sweet it is” exclamation (of those who know the answer) are thus  inextricably linked.

Asymmetric Information Strikes Back

Students of economics will recognize this as a problem of asymmetric information.  The people who make wine know its flavor profile and the people who buy it presumably know what they like (although winemakers tell me that people tend to say they like dry Riesling, but end up buying sweeter products). But they don’t know what’s in the bottle and can only find out by trying it.

Experimentation typically leads to confusion and disappointment as bottles that say “Riesling” produce glasses with much different taste. At some point, for many buyers, the disappointment factor is just too big. Lots of other wines out there. Why beat your head against the wall?  Riesling sits on the shelf.

One answer to the asymmetric information trap is signaling: tell the buyers what they need to know to make a purchase with confidence. It sounds pretty simple, but Riesling makers have until recently resisted it.

Of the seven Riesling table wines at my tasting, only two of them used the front label to signal something about the relative sweetness of the wine. The Pewsey Vale was labeled a “Dry Riesling” (and it was pretty dry, too) while the Pacific Rim bottling billed itself as a “Sweet Riesling” and was medium sweet and very tasty.

Some of the other wines offered descriptors on the back label, but I think it’s fair to say that a typical buyer would have been in the dark trying to figure out how sweet or dry most of them  were. The Pacific Rim wine was interesting because it was the first one I’ve seen that uses the International Riesling Foundation‘s new Riesling Tasting Profile Scale.  About a million cases of Riesling will be released this year by U.S. wineries that are participating in this program. Pacific Rim, a Washington Riesling specialist, has used the scale since 2008, according to a recent article on Decanter.com

How Dry Am I?

I first learned about this initiative at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference, sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle (Washington State) and Dr. Loosen (Mosel, Germany). An international group of Riesling producers decided to confront the asymmetric information problem head on by developing a simple way to communicate useful information about their wines.

Here is an example of the scale they have come up with taken from a limited edition Chateau Ste Michelle product. As you can see, it is pretty simple — just four descriptors ranging from Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet to Sweet with +/- variation. This wine is “Dry +” — between Dry and Medium Dry.

This would seem like a very small step were it not for the fact that the current state of bottle information is so very limited and uneven. I suspect that this small step will help a lot of wine drinkers take a positive step towards enjoying Riesling.

Simplicity Is Complicated

As is often the case, getting something simple like this tasting scale is a very complicated process. As you may imagine, not all producers see the situation in the same light (there is much more to wine, even Riesling, than sweetness — a valid point). And tastes differ, of course, so what is medium dry to you might be medium sweet to me. (Some of my students thought the Pewsey Vale Riesling was quite sweet, for example.)

How do you define  sweetness in wine? Well, of course, it is a matter of balance between sugar and acid — with the right balance even a dessert wine with a high residual sugar level can avoid having a sticky sweet taste. Translating the chemistry into a taste profile, however, is a complicated matter.

Here is how the IRF handled the problem. As you can see, the standard begins with a simple sugar to acid ratio test (a relative calculation of grams per liter of acid and sugar). It then takes into account the absolute pH, which can push the rating up or down one level of perceived sweetness. Click on the table to enlarge it and see a more detailed explanation of the methodology.

I am going to have to pull a few corks (or twist some ‘caps) to see if I agree with the scale and if there really is the desired consistency across makers. But I am optimistic that this is a step forward. If it works, how sweet it will be!

Note: I am looking forward to attending the 2010 Riesling Rendezvous and getting an update on progress on this and other Riesling industry issues.

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Update 2/17/2010

My friend David Rosenthal, a winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle, provides this useful news:

I wanted to let you know that all of the 2009 Rieslings from CSM will have the IRF scale on the back.  That includes:

Columbia Valley Riesling
Dry Riesling
Waussie Riesling
Harvest Select Riesling
Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling

We are jumping in with both feet on this one to try and educate people as much as possible at the point of sale.

Wine as a Liberal Art

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David Rosenthal at Chateau Ste Michelle

I  teach a class called “The Idea of Wine” at the University of Puget Sound. It isn’t your typical wine class. It’s an examination of wine in the context of geography, history, science, business, politics, culture and globalization and how these various forces create different and sometimes conflicting “ideas of wine.”

I guess it is really about my idea of wine – that wine is a liberal art and a fascinating social mirror. The fact that it tastes so good is a wonderful bonus.

Wine isn’t usually included in the liberal arts curriculum, reflecting  America’s prejudice against anything that contains alcohol. But there is historical precedent. Symposium, in the original Greek useage, was a discussion over wine! Wine, as I think about it anyway, is certainly in the liberal arts tradition.

Chateau Warehouse sur Industrial Park

Part of my course involves fieldwork. In 2008 I took  the class to experience two ideas of wine that they wouldn’t get on a typical winery visit. Ken Avedisian at Cordon Selections wine distributors gave us a tour of his warehouse and explained how the distribution business works. We learned how Ken successfully balances his deep love for wine with the need to make a living selling it. Most of all, I think, we came away with an understanding that wine business is really a people business and that Ken is successful because he never forgets this fact.

Then we visited owner/winemaker Tim Narby at Nota Bene Cellars, where he makes spectacularly good red wines in an anonymous South Seattle industrial park. No fancy chateau here, just focused winemaking using exceptional fruit. We were fortunate to be there during crush, so my students got a clear sense of how wine develops by tasting at many stages from fresh juice to fermentation bin to barrel to finished product. The field trip popped some romantic visions of wine by revealing the reality of how it is made and marketed.

The Big and the Small of It

This year we headed to Woodinville, Washington, which is home to four or five dozen wineries that range from tiny family operations to the large and magnificent Chateau Ste. Michelle. The fruit comes from Eastern Washington, but the wines themselves are made and sold here, close to the market in a classic “cluster” of inter-related businesses. Our agenda was to compare and contrast big and small winemakers to see what we could learn from the experience.

We started the day at JM Cellars, a family winery that has in just a few years  expanded from a couple of barrels to 5000 case annual production. The setting is so spectacular – perched an a hillside next to a wetlands – that Wine Advocate praises the view almost as much as the wine.

Owner/winemaker John Bigelow took us through both the cozy winery and the hands-on production process (it was crush time once again) and I think everyone learned a lot about the art, craft and science of winemaking. It was easy to see that John enjoyed the opportunity to talk with a group that really wanted to learn about wine, not just swirl, sip, spit and move on. It was a great experience.

After an alcohol-free lunch at the Red Hook Brewery pub (I think this made some of my beer-loving students want to cry!) we headed to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is Washington’s largest wine producer by a big margin. CSM and its sister wineries like Columbia Crest produce about three-quarters of all Washington wines. The beautiful Woodinville chateau-style facility makes nearly 2 million cases of white wine each year. The reds are made in Eastern Washington.

Enologist David Rosenthal took time out from the rush of crush to show us how a big winery works. Tanker trucks were arriving every few hours from the Eastern Washington vineyards full of fresh Riesling juice. We were able to taste the fresh juice and at several stages of the fermentation produces, with David drawing wine from the giant stainless steel fermentation tanks. Quite a difference in scale compared to JM!

The Little Winery Inside the Big One

One of the most interesting parts of the visit, for me at least, was to learn the extent to which CSM’s winemakers keep the lots of wine separate through fermentation and aging and, in the case of Chardonnay, make a point of experimenting with many different oak treatments. Instead of just making one big volume wine they actually make dozens and dozens of smaller lots, which can then be assembled in different ways that both reflect different geographic and geologic terroirs, different market ideas of wine (price points and so on, since CSM is in the wine business) and different aesthetic concepts of wine as well.

I’m impressed with CSM’s commitment to keeping wine small while making it big – I don’t know if there are many other wineries that pull off this trick quite so well. Maybe this is why Ted Baseler, CSM’s CEO, was recently name Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year. The citation reads

Ted Baseler is President/CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the most prominent wine company in Washington State. Under his leadership, it has evolved into a high performance organization known for its top quality, world-class wines; for its strategic partnerships with leading wine producers in Italy and Germany; and for collaborating with fellow members of Washington’s wine industry to help raise the region’s profile, worldwide. For his vision, leadership, brand-building, team-building, and region-building accomplishments, Ted Baseler is Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year.

Sounds like Chateau Ste Michelle thinks big and global while acting small and local. Sounds like a contradiction, but it is an appealing idea of wine.

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Special thanks to Ken, Tim, John and David (and to Marci Clevenger at JM Cellars) for making time in their busy schedules for my students and several parents who came along on the trip. Thanks, as well, to the anonymous donor who established the Robert G. Albertson Professorship at the University of Puget Sound, which makes my class and this educational fieldwork possible.

Wines from Spain: Challenges and Opportunities

You know that a market niche is expanding when Constellation Brands decides to move into it, as it  has done with Red Guitar, an old vines Tempranillo-Granacha blend from Spain’s Navarra DO that sells for about ten bucks.

Red Guitar is marketed as “a rich, smooth and stylish celebration of the Spanish lifestyle” — a wine for the times, I guess, when consumers are looking for products that let them trade down in terms of price while trading up to a fun, more casual way of living.

Don’t Know Much

I didn’t know very much about the wines of Spain and the Spanish wine industry, so I went back to the classroom this week to try to catch up at a three day seminar on Spain’s wines organized by The Wine Academy of Spain and taught by Esteban Cabezas. My fellow students came mainly from within the wine industry — sommeliers, distributors and retailers. I learned a lot and sampled dozens of great wines. We didn’t taste Red Guitar, but we did survey the market from $5 bottles on up to the highest levels, including table wines, Sherry and sparkling Cavas. Yes, I know. Tough work …

Education is important to the future of the wines of Spain.  As I have written before, the number of unfamiliar regions and grape varieties is a challenge that must be addressed if wines from Spain are to achieve their obvious market potential. Constellation Brands’ decision to market Red Guitar as a “lifestyle” brand probably reflects the difficulty of selling wine from unfamiliar places made with unfamiliar grapes in a market where the international  varietals and styles are the lingua franca. Spanish winemakers need to get the word out — to educate consumers and sellers. Classes like the one I attended are a good step in this direction.

Uncorking the Potential of Wines from Spain

It’s useful to think about Spain’s wine industry using a basic SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) framework. Wines from Spain have many strengths that go beyond their obvious quality in the glass. Spanish food and culture are hot and Spain is a popular tourist destination, factors that can be leveraged in the marketplace. Intangible cultural factors have always helped sell Italian wines, so it is not unreasonable to think that Spain will benefit from them as well. Red Guitar’s marketing strategy is an obvious attempt to do just this.

There are weaknesses, too, of course. While the sparkling Cavas are very popular, offering Champagne quality at beer prices in some cases, other segments of the Spanish industry suffer from consumer ignorance or indifference. Sherry wines from Andalusia, for example, suffer the same challenge as Riesling wines. Consumers think they know what they are (simple, sweet stuff) but they are wrong. The diversity of styles and complexity of the best wines gets lost. For those who know them Sherry wines are the great bargains of the wine world. But most consumers never find out what they are missing. That needs to change.

The amazing diversity of Spain’s table wines is a strength in this market, where consumers are unusually willing to try new products if they perceive good value. But diversity is also a weakness to the extent that it confuses consumers (especially American consumers)  who are looking for a “brand” identity and can’t find it. Spain doesn’t have  a distinct regional identity that would draw in consumers initially and then encourage further experimentation as some other wine producing areas do.

In Search of “Brand Spain”

New Zealand has “brand” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, which put that country on the wine map and gave millions of wine drinkers an excuse to try NZ wines. Oregon has its Pinot Noir, which has helped make it a wine region of international note despite its surprisingly small total production. Spain (like Washington State wine in this regard) produces so many different types and styles of wine that no one of them defines it. The regional identity is unclear. This is a barrier when trying to break into new markets, but a strength once a market beachhead has been established.

Although my terrioriste friends cringe when they hear me say this, I think it would be great if Spain had a Mondavi or Antinori who could define a “brand Spain”  in the global market. I think that a number of quality producers are trying to achieve this, but the industry is still pretty fragmented. Perhaps the consolidation that is sure to accompany the current economic downturn will move this process along.

The continuing economic crisis  is a great opportunity for Spain to expand export market share, especially in the United States where the market for wine is till growing in the mid-market segments. Spain, like Argentina, has a reputation for good value and distinctive wines and this is very useful right now.

Catch-22

It is important, however, to avoid being defined by low price alone. Spain’s first and fourth largest export markets (Germany and France) buy mainly low cost wines to stock the shelves of Aldi and similar discount sellers. Spain needs to focus on the UK and US (numbers two and three on their export table) where higher prices and margins are possible.

Another threat to Spain’s success in the international market is the temptation to conform too closely to the international market style (Pancho Campo, Spain’s leading wine authority, called this “the Australian style” in a Skype-dialogue with my class). Wines that are all alike become commodities at some point and it seems to me that Spain, with its already huge lake of surplus wines, wants to get out of that part of the market.

But there’s a Catch-22. It is easier, perhaps, to break into the market with a good value me-too wine. But it is hard to build upon that foundation (hence Australia’s current wine slump). Better to be yourself, distinctive, even quirky, it you can get consumers to give you a try.

As you can see, the prospects for Spain are as complex and multi-dimensional as the wines themselves.  I am optimistic that Spain’s wine industry will navigate this complicated passage successfully. Look for more on this topic in future posts.

Note: I would like to thank the Wine Academy of Spain and Catavino for allowing me to participate in the seminar on wines of Spain. Special thanks to my professor, Estaban Cabezas, and to Simone Spinner.

Tasting Note 8/11/2009: We tried the Red Guitar with dinner tonight and it was completely lacking in distinguishing qualities. It is hard to imagine that anyone who was introduced to the wines of Spain by Red Guitar would try another Spanish wine. Last night, however, we had the Borsao Tres Pichos, an Old Vines Granacha that sells for only a few dollars more, which was completely enchanting. You need to try Spain’s wines to know if you like them, but quality varies (and not just with price), so choose with care.

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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