The measure of riesling

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Why doesn’t riesling sell? What is it about this grape that winemakers love, yet so many people still avoid? 

First of all, riesling suffers from an image problem that is often attributed to our German friends. Many of us above the age of 35 will remember the sweet and grapey wines – labeled as riesling but often not – that flooded the market in the 70’s and 80’s. As a child, whenever there was something to celebrate, I was sent to the shop to buy a bottle of Piesporter, Blue Nun or Black Tower. Amazingly at the age of 10 I’d get served, as the wine was so low in alcohol it wasn’t taken seriously. 

Another reason why it sells so slowly is the fact that buyers never quite know the level of sweetness riesling will be. It can be made bone dry to tooth-rottingly sweet, which is why winemakers love it, but often there is no indication of style on the bottle. Some producers are using a sweetness scale on the back label to help their customers choose, but unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. 

The reason why is to do with natural grape acids. Riesling is high in acidity and residual sugar left over after fermentation (the sugar that wasn’t turned into alcohol) balances those acids. Just like when you add sugar to very sharp fruit, like grapefruit, or sugar syrup to a margarita. The winemaker has a choice, depending on the grapes, of how much sugar the wine needs to be in balance. 

Measuring the sweetness of a wine is not as easy as just measuring the sugar level as it will also depend on the acidity. A good example is champagne, which usually has 12 to 13 grams of residual sugar, but tastes dry, as it is very high in acid. In order to properly assess the style when using the riesling scale, the wines will need to be tasted by a panel, who will then decide where it sits. 

As of yet, not many producers in New Zealand have adopted the scale, preferring to include the style in the description on the back label. Checking the alcohol level of the wine helps. The lower it is, the sweeter the wine. 

Riesling has real purity, with little winemaker influence, such as oak. Its diversity is its virtue and it also offers great value, with the ability to age well. 

Though I love riesling, I don’t favour a particular style as long as it is in balance. A balanced riesling should leave your palate feeling mouth-puckeringly refreshed and not sugary. Here’s one I tried over the weekend that does just that. 

2008 Forrest Brancott Valley Riesling, Marlborough. Tasting just off-dry, even with 17 grams of residual sugar, this riesling has texture and weight. It has lime juice, stone-fruit and mineral flavours and will age well over five to seven years.

Check out more at Paul Tudgay’s Wine Down site