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…