Were it not for the Sugar Issue, Riesling probably would be up there with the world's greatest white wine.
No disrespect to great white Burgundy, California Chardonnay, or any of the other great white wines out there, but Riesling is widely known as one of the greatest of all grapes, white or red, and not only for early consumption.
Some of the longest-lived wines I have ever tasted are great, old, perfectly stored Rieslings. I even bought an array of 2001 German Rieslings for my grandson's 21st birthday party.
When made bone dry, like those of Australia's Clare Valley, the mineral-y scents, lime flavors, and austere, food-oriented elements in Riesling can make it one of the most striking wines you'll ever taste.
But here we run smack into the dilemma Riesling has had for more than a century: The Sugar Issue. Most Rieslings have some sugar.
And to say the word "sweet" to most wine lovers is to lead them to think of flabby, poor-quality jug wines of the past, plonk that has no place on their table. Wine lovers do not like to admit they drink wine with a bit of sugar.
They say they want Chardonnay because it's a bone-dry wine (even if it isn't). Proof comes from one of the best-selling Chardonnays in the country, Rombauer in the Napa Valley. The wine is popular with people who say they drink dry wine. But the wine is not totally dry.
So where does American-produced Riesling fit into this equation? In no-man's land. Most American Rieslings have a bit of sugar. The amount varies, as does the acid in the wines, and the higher the acid, the more likely the wine will taste drier.
I have had Rieslings that had quite a bit of residual sugar, but with acid levels so high that the wine was really dry to my taste.
And then we have the differences among people. Some people have such sensitive palates that they can detect as small an amount of sugar as a half percent. Others say that a wine with 2% residual sugar is dry to their palates.
The greatness of Riesling is that it can be a total joy to wine lovers who appreciate the flavors of the grape, whether it's a succulent and slightly sweet German Kabinett (which has a dry aftertaste!), or a Washington Riesling that's relatively dry on the tongue (but which has a slightly sweet aftertaste!).
And then there are the sensational Rieslings of New York, Michigan, Oregon, Ohio, and the cooler regions of California. Now we're even seeing superb Rieslings from some warmer climates. They all vary in sugar content, from dry to very sweet.
So how do we deal with the Sugar Issue? One newly formed group is answering that question.
The International Riesling Foundation, formed less than two years ago, has developed a Taste Scale that allows wineries to put a small chart on their wine labels that carry an arrow showing just how sweet or dry a wine is.
I was asked to develop the technical guidelines for the IRF Taste Scale and I'm pleased to say that the chart is now being used by about a dozen wineries around the world, including an announcement last week that a New Zealand winery would use the chart.