Riesling continues to fail
It’s fast becoming a cliché that Riesling is the wine
trade’s favourite white grape variety. However, judging from the
turnout at a recent trade tasting focusing solely on this grape,
it’s true. So, the big question: if Riesling is so popular with
people who generally know a bit about wine, then why is it such a flop
with regular punters? I’ll try to answer this frankly, so Riesling
lovers, please don’t take offence. It’s time for some tough love.
association with German wine
Riesling is inextricably linked
to Germany in the eyes of the consumer. German wines still have an
image of naffness, largely because of the cheap, semi-sweet brands
that were favoured tipples of Brits before Aussie Chardonnay came
along. This leads us on neatly to point 2.
The association with sweetness
Consumers associate Riesling with sweetness. And sweet
wines are naff. Unsophisticated. Let’s face it, the ultimate faux
pas in the eyes of most punters would be to order a sweet wine with
food. While Australian Rieslings are almost all bone dry, let’s
remember that the grape was first planted there by German immigrants
who wanted to recreate the wines of their homeland. In South Africa,
where producers still work with Riesling, many will make it in a
medium sweet style so they’ve got something to sell to the blue
rinse crowd at the cellar door. Same is true in California. And the
Alsatians just confuse the hell out of everyone by making Riesling
sweet, medium sweet and bone dry depending on their whim and the
ripeness of the vintage. This brings us on to point 3.
The bottle shape
Look at the tall, fluted bottle that almost all Rieslings
are packaged in. It says ‘sweet’. It says ‘German’. And to
most consumers it shouts ‘leave well alone’. Why do Riesling
producers making dry wines in new world countries persist with it?
Even some German estates have moved to Burgundy-shaped bottles when
they are making dry wines targeted at supermarket shoppers, and
they’ll often also have been kind enough to give the wine an
Australian-sounding brand name, rather than a complicated German name.
Bottle shapes communicate a lot. For whites, a tall German bottle says
‘sweet’, a Bordeaux style steeply shouldered bottle says crisp and
unoaked, and a Burgundy style bottle says full flavoured and possibly
But Riesling needn’t continue to fail. My prescription?
Dry Rieslings have great potential to be the new Sauvignon Blanc. Let
me explain what I mean. There have been trends with white wines.
Chardonnay held the crown for a decade or so, but has recently lost it
to Sauvignon, which is now the Big Thing. People find crisp, fresh
Sauvignons, unencumbered with oak, to be incredibly useful wines at
table. They are now the trendy choice in restaurants. Riesling could
equally well fill this role in its dry incarnation. Remember, Riesling
is an intrinsically ‘better’ grape than Sauvignon Blanc because of
its ability to transmit ‘terroir’ characteristics, and its
ageworthiness. But if Riesling wants to become fashionable and
sophisticated in the eyes of non-wine-geeks, it needs to break free of
its current image, lose the association with sweetness and—dare I
say it, Germany—and smarten up its presentation, using either the
Bordeaux (my preferred option) or Burgundy bottle shape. I’m going
to go out on a limb here. Whether or not it ever be as popular as
Sauvignon or Chardonnay is uncertain, but at least then it would stand
half a chance.
also: Riesling: the noblest white grape?
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