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.


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.

14 responses

  1. A fascinating article. I’m pleased you mentioned how affordable good Riesling is; people should be snapping up these often quite fine wines before the everyone notices and the prices sky-rocket; they are never going to get any cheaper. Riesling is not just a bargain but also the way forward with white grapes.

  2. Interesting concept. An actual NIST traceable method for qualifying an aspect of the taste of wine. If someone could develop a similar method for quantifying other aspects of taste you might eventually get the control group you were looking for in a past blog.

  3. Dear Mike,

    Love the picture. Thank you for the post that I have enjoyed (of course thanks for the reference to Pacific Rim). Looking forward to read your book. Let m eknow if you need a proof rider, I love wine and economics.

    Pacific Rim

  4. poor Riesling, this problem doesnt seem to have affected Pinot Gris nearly as much whose sugar levels are equally all over the place.
    at Sandihurst, we use the IRF scale here but are possilby the only winery in New Zealand to do so. the customers like it but critics argue that labelling your wine as ‘sweet’ is a real turn-off.
    any thoughts?

    • Sweetness as a supposed consumer turn-off is a complicated issue. Perception of and appreciation of sweetness vary widely among consumers and don’t necessarily correlate. FWIW, the terms used in the sweetness scale were tested for relative positioning on a representative sample of core wine consumers. Then there’s the problem that many writers and trade members have been telling consumers for decades that sweet wines don’t go with food (another canard). But which is “worse”: telling people the wine is sweet and losing some customers who don’t want that taste, or not telling them and having them try it and dislike the wine AND distrust its producer or purveyor?

  5. I think this is very interesting. My first reaction is that the PG drinker is a different creature from a Riesling drinker, especially at the introductory level.

    My second thought is that as a NZ producer your customers are coming to PG from Sauvignon Blanc whereas here in the US they are probably going to Riesling from Chardonnay, with its typical oak. I am thinking that the SB/PG transition is friendlier than the C/R move. But I’m an economist not a sommelier, so no one should pay much attention to my ideas on taste transitions, I suppose.

  6. OK, great. We recently opened a bottle of Pacific Rim with some slightly spicy food, and it went very well – just what the label said.

    Now, can someone please do the same thing with Vouvray?

  7. Good article. But still…I’m looking at four bottles of Riesling. Dr L – no indication of sweetness. St. Gabriel Auslese has the little scale on the back that shows it between semi sweet and sweet. Gunderloch “Diva” – no indication of sweetness. Zilliken Forstmeister Geltz – no indication of sweetness.
    One out of four. And your article mentioned Dr Loosen. Yet Dr L says nothing. Don’t these producers want people to buy their wines?

  8. Bruce, you brought up a good question. I am of the opinion most U.S. wine drinkers know what their palate likes and will continue to purchase the wines they have enjoyed in the past. “Dumbing” down for the consumer is probably not going to be effective long term. Indication of sweetness or acid, like “tasting notes” (if any) on the back label are simply ineffective. We all have a different palate. Let me put it this way… it’s is simply a marketing tool and nothing more. Show me otherwise with data other than the Genome Project (Constellation Wines) which might prove my point anyway.

  9. That last one was a bit arrogant. Look around, there are a million 20 somethings getting ready to taste their first glasses of wine in the US. Beer is much cheaper. At 21 years old I was not too willing to spend 20 plus dollars on a bottle I took one sip of and threw away because it was disgusting to me. (Most dry wines are to me) I wanted to know which basic group it fell into and a basic description all on the bottle. I was much more willing to part with hard earned cash knowing basically what I was getting. I got a much better understanding after getting (Army) stationed in very southwest Germany 1000 feet from the border of France. The whole area was vineyards on both sides of the border and I spent a lot of time in as many of them as I could. Riesling was always my favorite there. These days I’m torn with Florida Carlos White Muscadine as a very close second.

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