There were a couple of polite protests after my last posting on the delights of dry riesling and the joys of the Riesling Rendezvous at Chateau Ste. Michelle (you can read them in the comments section of the last post). “What about off-dry and sweet Rieslings,” they generally went, “some of the best wines I’ve ever had were sweetish-to-sweet Reislings.”
My personal issue is really more with sweet (or, off-dry, an imprecise term we’ll get to in a minute) Rieslings as they have been mostly crafted here in the US. Until recently, the majority of Rieslings wines that most Americans had tasted were produced in mass quantities with little regard to quality and an objective of providing a cheap “easy-drinking” wine. These kinds of wines are what most Americans associate with “Riesling.”
Granted, off-dry Rieslings--sometimes known by the German designation as auslese- and spatlese-style rieslings--can be fantastic wines. But even so, the average American palate, I’m afraid, can’t distinguish the beautifully balanced sweet Rieslings from the plonk--and has had little experience with great Rieslings of any style
The second major tasting at the Riesling Rendezvous was of off-dry Rieslings and it was moderated by British wine writer Stephen Brook (whose recent book on Bordeaux is well worth having). He opened the panel by posing the question (to paraphrase) “Why should we bother with sweet Rieslings? Is there a reason for these sweet wines to exist?”
He was implicitly acknowledging that sweeter Rieslings can be problematic for many people. In fact, the very definition of what constitutes a sweet Riesling is fungible. As we tasted through the 14 wines in the flight it was clear that some of them tasted distinctly dry, even though their actual RS was somewhere around 1.5% or more. But their balancing acidity created a stronger sense of “dryness” than equally sweet (by RS measurement) wines whose acidity was less.
This sweet/dry dichotomy is a major impediment to increased Riesling sales. In fact, a group calling itself the International Riesling Foundation (with multiple Northwest wineries as members) is proposing a set of label standards to help guide consumers. They advocate adopting five terms to indicate the level of sweetness in Riesling: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.
I frankly don’t know if they have any standards for these labels. What is the line of demarcation between Medium Dry and Medium Sweet? Perhaps they have, I just don’t know. The intent behind these labels is laudatory: consumers must be given more indication of what style of Riesling to expect in a bottle. But the practicalities may be difficult to overcome.
This was a major topic of discussion at the Riesling Rendezvous. There are no easy answers, but for me it boils down to one thing: balance. There are great sweet Rieslings and great dry Rieslings. What makes them great is not their degree of dryness or sweetness but the balance among their components. My palate prefers dry Rieslings most times, but when a sweet Riesling is well balanced with acidity, it can be just as good as anything. Unfortunately, in my tasting experience, there have been few great American-made sweet Rieslings. For those wines, I’d rather go back to Europe or across the seas to Australia.