The Big Fight Over Riesling

I don’t know, Rocky. Maybe if you were a little bit drier?

Riesling has been the source of a great deal of contention of late. Two wine critics seem to rather handily summarize the entrenched positions on either side of the debate.

In this corner: Steve Heimoff firmly positions himself amidst the jeering masses that dislike Riesling, and resents wine cognoscenti’s insistence that it be appreciated.

And in this corner, after a lifetime of trying to spread the Gospel about its virtues, Jancis Robinson worships Riesling as king, but now frets over its ability to fulfill its destiny and claim its throne among world markets, particularly in light of recent contracting sales data.

Thinking aloud about what may be holding Riesling back, Jancis notes its strong characteristic “flavour” (unexplained in youthful Riesling, and described as petrol in older Riesling).

There’s no denying Riesling ages into a petrol aroma, but, let’s fill in the blank … that youthful flavor is one of fruitiness: a blessed, fulsome fruitiness.

If we agree to take German Mosel Valley Riesling — the most edgy and rocky of all Riesling terroirs — as a yardstick, the terroir typically expresses itself in a fairly limited set of aromatic profiles: “… the most typical blue slate fruit-driven character is typically apple, white peach, or — if ripe — yellow peach; red slate, by comparison, offers more brawny, spicy minerality, and occasionally tropical fruit”1.

As we’ll see shortly, however, this fulsome fruity blessing is equally its curse.

IS THE SUN SETTING ON RIESLING’S RENAISSANCE?

Riesling has traced quite the sales apogee over the last few years. Somewhat recent data show not only that per capita wine consumption is rising in the largest market in the world (USA), but also that Riesling has become more and more a part of that consumption (Riesling grew 72% from 2003-20062, outpacing every other major variety aside from hopelessly boring, easy-to-pronounce Cougar wine — aka. industrial Pinot Grigio).

Image courtesy www.germanwines.de

German imports to the USA surpassed those of all of Western Europe in 2014. ‘A quarter of the entire export value is realized in the United States of America, owing to the Riesling Renaissance in the last decade in particular’.3

Paul Grieco and Ernst (Erni) Loosen have steered that Renaissance; Grieco started a national Riesling craze with the Summer of Riesling, and Erni Loosen tours the world proselytizing while selling a great deal here in the US to bolster its footprint.

Everything was going great, until some recent data showed sales were flagging.  Jancis notes this in her article: “Even Loosen’s man in the US Kirk Wille admits that sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition, so it’s more difficult to sell than Pinot Grigio, say, or certainly Chardonnay. I think a lot of trade are getting worn out from trying”.

Sigh. Yeah.

THE SISYPHEAN STRUGGLE: ROCKY PART II

It typically goes like this:

So what foods will you be having with your wine?”
“Oh … like, spicy Asian food. Maybe a Cab? A nice Cab?”
Oh! okay, so, right, I can see a Gewurztraminer or an off-dry Chenin working (total flat-line) or (brace for impact…) a Riesling would actually be perfect if you’re open to it? Because the alcohol and oak of the Cab will clash with the spiciness …”
“Oh, no, not Riesling! Riesling is too sweet! I can’t stand Riesling.”
(Sigh). “Well actually it’s not, but — that’s okay. So, yeah, this Gewurz is actually a classic pairing ….

 

It’s a deathly predictable battle against misnomer and distorted consumer expectation. I’ve actually brought a couple Rieslings into the store that are so achingly dry that the consumer will more likely than not come back asking for a bit of sugar (a monastic minority actually do find them a perfect fit, and I salute them). And so, in many a best-case scenario, the march back to the register from the Riesling section, bottle in hand, is punctuated by that inevitable refrain:

‘It’s dry, you said, right?’ ‘Yep’. ‘Totally dry, right?’ ‘Bone dry’.

Perhaps one in three potential Riesling customers ends up biting and opening their mind after first sensing my thinly-veiled indignation and then hearing the Shoreline Explanation™. That is to say:

“All wine is a balance of sugar and acid; the acid must regularly arrive, not unlike waves from the sea, to rake flavor elements off of the shoreline ‘palate’, thus staving off palate fatigue and coaxing you into drinking more. If there’s too much sugar and insufficient acid, you’ve got yourself a cloying wine; or, if there’s too little sugar and excess acid, you’ve got a masochistic hair-shirt for the tongue.”

And so, the story goes, we need residual sugar (=sweetness) after all, and so you really should open your mind to this jaw-droppingly beautiful Riesling I’m begging you to try.

Here we tap into the exasperation that may be driving what Heimoff characterizes as wine cognoscenti’s insistence that the masses try Riesling. Why such profound exasperation? Simply because as wine sales people, we know from countless experiences that even if the consumer says “dry”, pour them a properly chilled, well-made off-dry Riesling at a tasting and they will lose their shit and buy it. And then tell everyone they know about it. That’s it; that’s the heart of the exasperation. I say dry … but deep down, I really love sweet.

How many nuns does it take to ruin Riesling?

So what’s the solution here?

We’ve all heard the German fairy tale about the unending scourge of Liebfraumilch, which Germans often cite as a source of all Riesling marketing woes — the shitty, industrial Blue Nun.4

And, we all recognize that German labels and the prädikat system in general can be a labyrinthine mess for consumers (feinherb, halbtrocken? spätlese trocken —I picked ripe, but then vinified dry?). But ultimately, this falls short of circumscribing the problem.

Honestly, I’m wondering why so few have thought to evoke the major stumbling block of Riesling:

Riesling is FRUITY, but not necessarily SWEET. This is simply impossible for an average wine consumer to wrap their head around.

Why can’t the market distinguish sweet from fruity? For the simple reason that, in human experience, if one is tasting fruitiness, one is also NECESSARILY tasting sugar. The two are an inviolate pair. Ask yourself: when was the last time you tasted something fruity but not sweet?

This is the crux of the problem. And, it’s understandable, so let’s cut consumers a break.

To confront this challenge, the IRF (International Riesling Federation) has found a clever means of assuaging consumers’ fears:

Curious about the mandated sugar to acid ratio for each category? See here. This visual dichotomy intuitively communicates quite a bit. First: dry is the opposite of sweet5. Second, the driest a wine can be is the far left; if the little triangle is near the left edge, wine couldn’t be drier, so don’t even bother asking. That little triangle saves me 80% of haggling with customers during the inevitable refrain and march back to the register, because ‘Why would a bottle lie to a person?’

The IRF slider typically only figures on the back of inexpensive Rieslings that hold the consumer’s hand; not the intimidating 150-letter prädikat-level labels that care naught for marketing success which insist that you understand the German prädikat logic.

If it were to figure on the back of each, I wonder if this slider would alter the fates of the three bottles below. Price considerations aside, which wine do you think consumers consistently reach for?

 

Yep, that’s right, Clean Slate is the wine that sells itself by the pallet, thanks to its clever name, modern and intuitive label, and its all-around lack of intimidating elements6. The Leitz Dragonstone sells fairly well, too, founded on a clever cleaving of the parcel name — ‘Rudesheimer Drachenstein’ — down to the sci-fi fantasy ‘Dragonstone’ (which is, after all, what ‘Drachenstein’ means; well-played, Josef Leitz).

And of course tragically, the greatest wine of the trio, the achingly beautiful Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Spätlese, whose traditional label is perfectly illegible without turning the bottle7, and whose name only 2.78% of the world population could remember and then spell correctly8, is the big loser given this phenomenon.

Flagging sales or not, challenging labels and all … all is not lost for Riesling; far from it. I coud never stop drinking it, and I’ll keep pushing that rock. And as an occasional solace, I do have customers phoning or coming in asking for Riesling. Some like it sweet and have no qualms; still others already crave off-dry Riesling … all without the slightest coaxing.

Here are three dry wines I proudly brandish as a shield to defend Riesling’s nobility:

2010 Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling von blauem Schiefer Reserve:

This producer is like a biodynamic priest in the Mosel Valley in Germany. His wines can be erratic from vintage to vintage, but in the electric, high-acid and high-must weight 2010 vintage, he just killed it. This is balls-to-the-wall Riesling. Admittedly, this bottle looks like something you would kill a vampire with. But Lord, the contents couldn’t be a greater contrast to the blackened wax cork, blood red estate image, and otherworldly silver script — as inside lives a bright, fresh, acidic, a blindingly mineral wine, that tastes of ground wet blue slate. A marvelous wine, and a ravishingly delicious partner for a wide swath of foods. 2010 acid-level gymnastic brilliance — the sugar feels almost palpable, but the acid is so intense it finishes decidedly dry and mineral, as if you dozed off next to a stone cutting machine and woke up with a mouth full of slate dust. Just lovely. Peaches for days, but a tactile twist in the cheeks’ interior as the acid gets to work on the long finish. A monumental wine that wants to be laid down for at least 5 years but simply won’t last that long because it just beckons. 13% ABV.

 

2008 Reichsrat Von Buhl Forster Pechstein Riesling Großes Gewächs: Wow, this is like a “Best of” Pechstein, my favorite Pfalz vineyard. Amazingly saline, black basalt indeed. True that it’s easy to mistake Pechstein’s bite for a sulphurous flaw but oh-hohoo, this is undeniably potent, massive delicious wine. The fruit comes thick and heavy but is properly kept in check by acid. This is some of my favorite Riesling. The Pfalz can produce amazing wines in the hands of talented winemakers in leaner vintages (sometimes they can get too syrupy, it’s a rather delicate balancing act in the Forst vineyard so far removed from water and coastal influence). 12% ABV.

2010 Albert Boxler Riesling Grand Cru Brand: What, you thought good Riesling only came from Germany? Think again. This wine is like a stone dagger with such mineral cut — a dagger carved from the well-drained, granite soil it grew in. Vinography did an excellent vineyard profile I cannot hope to top. This wine proved that Alsace could walk a leaner tightrope than many other Alsatian whites, which often reveal a hot finish or a latex / BandAid aroma. This aroma may be linked to ripeness or higher fermentation temperatures vs the Mosel9.  But in this noble giant? No heat, no latex. Some allusions to violet. It’s been three weeks since I tasted it, and I’m still haunted by it. A wine worthy of a scepter and rod amongst its Alsatian peers. 12.5% ABV.

What do you think might be holding Riesling back? Let me know in the comments.

 

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  1. Quoth Ernst Loosen at an aged Auslese Tasting at Hearth, 9/15/2011, New York, NY []
  2. http://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/statistics/article86, http://www.beveragemedia.com/index.php/2013/02/rise-of-riesling/ []
  3. http://www.germanwines.de/presse?uMen=cec1c412-768a-401b-e592-6461d7937aae&sel_uCon=aad00c50-c39d-4415-915f-034044755dbd&uTem=d5304ee7-4f03-d212-517b-6624c41ed8b2&pagesize=10&page=1&all=true []
  4. Did you know that at its peak Blue Nun sold at the same price as a second growth Bordeaux, AND actually was primarily Müller-Thurgau (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Nun)? []
  5. You’d be amazed how many customers pretend to understand this but actually don’t []
  6. Okay, low price helps: but other similarly low-priced Rieslings with more traditional labels don’t get picked up by consumers nearly as often []
  7. And I frankly would be sad if ever their label had a clever simplified name or critter on it; production is so small and sells so readily there’s no need to change it. []
  8. World population = 7,174,611,584 http://www.indexmundi.com/world/demographics_profile.html, 200 million speakers for all varieties and L2 German: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_language, gives us 200,000,000/7,174,611,584=0.02787607352
    or 2.78% of world. A generous estimate as well, as grade-school German children probably are included and could not pull it off. []
  9. Thierry Fritsch, the brilliant porte-parole and head enologist and educator for the CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace) for Alsatian wines believes it is more a question of ripeness and harvest date; Mélanie Pfister hypothesizes about typically higher Alsatian fermentation temperatures vs the Mosel []

2 comments

  1. I have to disagree, Clean Slate looks totally cheap, like €2 Spanish white from viura or airen. On the other side Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg is perfectly recognizable (how many wine bottles WITHOUT label on the side have you seen?). Comparing single vineyard spätlese from single vineyard and small traditional producer with mass produced riesling from grapes coming from all region is unfair. What is the price difference? 5x? I agree the name is hard to pronounce. But is Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Clos du Prieuré much easier?

    • Gargantua says:

      You raise a really interesting point RE French wines’ relative difficulty in terms of pronunciation and retention. I can’t pretend I have an answer to that; yet I suspect German labels are still more challenging than French given the length of words, and just weight of the text on the label? Regarding the comparison of labels, I fear you may have missed the point of the comparison: the goal is to examine the labels’ effect on consumers INDEPENDENT of price and quality. The Clean Slate IS a cheap wine, but that doesn’t stop its marketing success–I even had a customer the other day say to me: “For the Riesling you suggest for my mixed white case–I typically don’t like Riesling, so I’ll pass on those. Please send a case of the Clean Slate (?!!)”. Amazing. As noted in the article, the Karthäuserhofberg is obviously the finest wine of the bunch: yet it doesn’t care at all for legibility. Your idea that having no clear label is in and of itself a memorable marketing technique is indefensible in my opinion. And so this compels my third example: Leitz, who is on some level a hybrid of this mass-market, well-marketed QbA slop and a finer, pedigreed single vineyard wine, with his clever transformation of ‘Rudesheimer Drachenstein’ to ‘Dragonstone’. Which do you think consumers will be able to ‘retain’ better, ie. remember to then tell their friends and have their friends find it on Google or elsewhere, and be able to recite when asking wine merchants?

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