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.
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
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.