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Why 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.

(1)The 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.

(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. 

(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 oaky.

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.

See also: Riesling: the noblest white grape?

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