Berger on wine: Riesling endures despite misperceptions

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One day in June 2007, a dozen winery representatives, regional marketing organizations and an attorney gathered for a private luncheon at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington.

The topic: should we form an international nonprofit group to promote riesling worldwide?

Beyond logistical issues (such as where the money would come from to support such a group), all agreed: riesling needed a support group to educate and enlighten wine newcomers to riesling excellence.

Everyone at the luncheon adored riesling. Many offered differing views about its fate here, indicating how misunderstood it was.

Some U.S. restaurants carried dessert-style rieslings; only a tiny few carried any that were dry or off-dry.

Few people knew how remarkable dry rieslings could be with years of age in a cool cellar. Those who liked them with age often were seen as loony. (“Don’t you know that white wines don’t age?!”) For generations, almost no knew how dramatic older rieslings could be.

Most Americans thought all rieslings were sweet. Many had read disparaging comments from wine “experts” who implied that riesling was only for old ladies, novice wine drinkers, or derelicts.

Riesling was so widely denigrated that even those who made truly exemplary versions remained skeptical that it could survive. Even great forms of it were endangered, they said.

After lunch, the gathered approved the founding of the International Riesling Foundation (IRF). There was strong support from German producers as well as wineries and trade organizations from Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Australia, California, Michigan and New York.

Despite the fact that riesling is widely considered one of the world’s greatest white grapes and makes some of its most astoundingly dramatic wines, it is still disparaged by many who don’t understand it. Many still say it is slightly to very sweet. The IRF would work to counter the misimpressions.

At that first meeting, one issue stood out as vital: How to alert consumers to the many interpretations of “dry,” and varying degrees of sweetness? “Dry riesling” may seem to be self-explanatory; but there was rarely any agreement among producers as to what dry meant.

To deal with this, I agreed to try to solve the terminology issue regarding “dry” and other terms. Working with several winemakers including the brilliant Derek Wilbur of New York, we settled on the fact that many “dry” rieslings may contain residual sugars if the acid is high enough and the pH is low enough.

So I created a multilevel formula that gives winemakers ways to determine if their wines are dry or medium dry (a term the Germans particularly loved).

The formula is a guide only; winemakers may choose to use it or wing it. But if they use it, it’s usually on their back labels and looks like this: The optional formula is at the DrinkRiesling.com site, drinkriesling.com/tasteprofile/thescale.

Several weeks ago, before our recent trip to New Zealand, I had been thinking about the high acidity that had left many Kiwi rieslings with more sugars than they needed. It was a topic that, coincidentally, also attracted New Zealand’s top wine critic, Bob Campbell of Auckland.

In an article for Air New Zealand’s in-flight magazine, Campbell wrote about what he said was the importance of telling consumers the sort of wine they’d be getting.

He spoke of the IRF scale: “It’s an incredibly useful guide when buying riesling, and it also helps riesling drinkers calibrate sweetness levels,” he wrote. “I think every bottle of (New Zealand) riesling should have this scale on their back label.”

He had recently staged an evaluation of 54 Kiwi rieslings. He wrote that only 11 carried the scale. I consider its appearance on a bottle of riesling a most intelligent way to empower buyers.

Discovery of the Week: 2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley ($11): Even though it says the wine is dry, the label probably should say “medium dry.” Best with spiced foods such as Thai or Indian. It has a trace of noticeable residual sugar and isn’t austere. Floral in aroma, it is succulently soft in the entry but dry enough to enhance milder seafood dishes, too. Ste. Michelle, Washington’s largest winery, makes about 1 million cases of a regular (slightly sweeter) riesling and about 100,000 cases of this stellar, drier styled wine. A bargain at this price, it may also be found widely discounted to $7 or so.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country Wednesdays 5-6 p.m. with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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