When writer Paul Gregutt recently wrote a series on his blog about Washington’s five essential varieties, the grape he started with was Riesling. This was far from a random choice. While red grapes varieties often get more press, Riesling has been somewhat of a signature grape for Washington. It is the state’s most produced grape (Chardonnay edged it out in 2009, but Riesling growers swear they will be back), and the variety grows particularly well here. Washington also produces a lot of wine from the resulting grapes. Woodinville’s Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest Riesling producer in the country.
According to the International Riesling Foundation (IRF), a non-profit association created to increase awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the grape, Riesling is on the rise in the U.S. It is the fastest growing white wine in terms of sales. This would seem to present Washington with an opportunity to brand itself nationally and increase consumer awareness of its wines more generally.
Unfortunately, Riesling has long presented several problems to wine consumers in Washington and elsewhere. The first is the misperception that the wine is always sweet (styles range from bone dry to sweet). The second is that, even if a consumer knows Riesling is not always a sweet wine, he or she often has no idea what to expect from a bottle. I enjoy Riesling in its many flavors. What I do not enjoy is a sweet Riesling when I am expecting or wanting a dry one and a dry Riesling when I am expecting or wanting a sweet one. Wines are infrequently labeled as dry, off-dry, or sweet (Chateau Ste. Michelle should be commended for doing so I might add). Unless a consumer has tried a wine or read about it, the only way to know – outside of searching on-line for a technical sheet – is to try it and find out.
It is therefore with delight that I read about the IRF’s Riesling Taste Profile. Of the profile, the IRF writes:
“To help consumers predict the taste in a particular bottle of Riesling, the IRF created a Riesling Taste Profile which Riesling producers may use on their back labels, merchandising materials and elsewhere. The winery may choose…where the arrow should go based on a set of technical guidelines and their own judgment.”
The set of guidelines to assist winemakers include a chart of the technical parameters involved in the perception of sweetness, such as sugar, acid, and pH.
Some wineries began labeling wines with the profile in the 2008 vintage. Considerably more are doing so for the 2009 vintage. Not surprisingly, Chateau Ste. Michelle announced plans last year to label their bottles with the profile. Many other Washington wineries are following suit.
This is good news for consumers and good news for wineries. Consumers will be better able to find wines in a style they are looking for and will also hopefully experiment with other styles. Wineries can use it as an educational opportunity in the tasting room and at events. They can also be assured that if they are not there to speak for the wine, consumers are less likely to be taken off guard by a style they are not expecting.
The Riesling Taste Profile seems likely to continue Riesling’s rise in Washington and the U.S. Now if we could just do something about rosé…
Riesling is a wine I started with, then moved away from when my taste in wine became drier. A few years ago I was introduced to dry Reisling from the Finger Lakes and I was amazed. The Riesling profile is a great thing. Some producers previously listed residual sugar, which is a great guide — but too few. The terms "semi-dry" and "semi-sweet" in the past have provided no true guidance whatsoever.
This is a good step for Washington and the wine world.
Just wanted to correct you regarding first adopter of the scale. pacific Rim was the first winery to label its wine with the scale. All our 2008 production had the scale on the label.
This scale is great for consumers and producers. The great thing is that it takes into account balance (sugar and acid), not just the sugar concentration. It is great that producers like Pacific Rim and Ste Michelle are using it. This will build consumer awareness, which helps us little guys out too. We want to get it on our 2009 label which is being bottled soon. Not sure if we'll be able to make the changes in time.
Sean, like you I am pleased that this scale is being tried out. I am still a bit skeptical about it's ultimate utility. I've had many rieslings with residual sugar up around 1.5 or even 2 percent that tasted dry, while others below 1 percent were more in the off-dry perception range. Two other indicators that are useful in assessing sweetness are whether or not the riesling is labeled "dry" – if it is, it darn well better taste dry. And where's the alcohol? If it's over 13%, odds are you have a wine that tastes dry.
Tiny Pey-Marin Vineyards in Marin County CA started using a very similar scale beginning in 2005. Their "Shell Mound" Riesling is DRY at zero point three percent (yes zero point three percent – not 3%) with delightfully bracing acidity.
Sandihurst Winery, here in New Zealand, has adopted the scale. Its not perfect perhaps in that slightly sweeter range where the acid is also in beautiful balance but its a start – surely Pinot Gris would also benefit from it
DN, I think this is exactly what the IRF is hoping for – to bring consumers who may have been turned off by the confusion back to the wine.
Nicolas, didn't mean to imply that Chateau Ste. Michelle was the first in WA to use the labels, just the biggest. Thanks for passing on the information on Pacific Rim.
Craig, glad to hear that you will be using it. Hope you can get it on the 2009s.
Paul, I share the skepticism about how it will play out in the ensuing years. With the IRF providing some guidance on perceived sweetness based on sugar, acid, and alcohol, hopefully wineries will label the wines appropriately (and hopefully the IRF got it right). However, the labeling is ultimately the winery's decision, whether they use it and use it appropriately. I can see some being reluctant to label a wine as sweet unless they really intended it to be so.
RiesGuy, thanks for passing along the information about Pey-Marin. Will be interested to hear how their experience has been with it.
Kirk, very good idea for Pinot Gris. I had one recently that could have been a dessert wine and was not expecting it. Once bitten twice shy.
Thanks for the comments all!