But Preston, Riesling is just way to sweet for me! Well I’m glad you site that concern. Americans have given Riesling a bad rap, creating this idea that all Riesling is sweet, when in fact much of it is not. Producers, especially bulk producers over the last few decades have saturated the market to cater to the American palate, which loves sweets. This has given a larger stage to mostly very sweet Riesling. I believe our American palate is changing, it just might take a minute for producers, importers, and distributors to get with it.
Know that there is dry Riesling and that it is amazing! But also know that some sweetness is not bad, it just has to be done well.
Even though much of the Riesling that is produced, even by top producers for people outside the U.S., is made to leave some residual sugar, it is left for a reason and in good taste. Riesling’s crazy high acidity needs something to balance it out, and some residual sugar does just that. High quality producers of Riesling do not create Rieslings that are thick, syrupy, and cloyingly sweet, like many Rieslings you may have had. They make deliciously balanced Riesling that has a sharp acidity that cuts right through the sweetness leaving just the nicest note of honey on your tongue. The hard part is knowing what to look for and how to spot drier Riesling as well as top quality producers. I am not going to get into the confusing and detailed labeling of German Riesling today (you’ll have to wait until my Riesling letter), but I do want to give you a general idea of how to spot different levels of ripeness and sweetness.
1. On German Riesling “Trocken” = dry
2. Often Alsace, New York state, Washington state, and Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia = dry
3. Most American Riesling will say “dry” on the label if it is such, or have a sweetness meter on the back label.
4. High alcohol content (11%+) = dry (Fermentation turns sugars to alcohol. So high alcohol means more of the sugar was fermented out to create more alcohol. In sweeter wines fermentation is killed to leave some residual sugar, thus keeping alcohol levels at a low)
5. “Kabinett”, “Spatlese”, and “Auslese” Riesling all tend to have some residual sugar but can in some cases be dry, in which case they may also be labeled “Trocken” (I know, confusing). These terms signify different levels of ripeness, not sweetness. Ripeness is referring to when the grapes were picked in the season. Different levels of ripeness give us different flavors. (lemon/green apple/floral = under ripe to apricot, peach,beeswax = more ripe)(Just think green fruits = not quite ripe to just ripe and possibly from a cooler climate while more tropical fruit flavors = more ripe or possibly from a warm climate. You can do this with any wine, not just Riesling). Kabinett is the most delicate and lightest in body as it is harvested earliest in the season, and will therefore have less sugars in the grape and thus less sugar in the wine…..probably. That is, unless the winemaker decided to kill fermentation early to keep sweetness levels up or chose to ferment dry his or her Spatlese and Auslese. Kabinett grapes are harvested early. Spatlese grapes are harvested late. Auslese are hand selected extra-ripe grapes bunches. While you can’t always assume Kabinett will be drier than Auslese, you can usually make a good bet. At the end of the day, you will just have to crack open the bottle and taste it, or do some research on the style and producer! I’d say the tasting route is much more fun.
In spotting some of those high quality producers I mentioned, the hard truth is that most top quality producers tend to cost more. So if you’re spending $50+ dollars on a German Riesling you can take a good guess that it will give you some good balance (acidity to go along with some sweetness). But of course this is not always the case, just a very general rule. These are definitely worth your money though, and because of their high acidity, will cellar for years. We have a bottle of J.J. Prum Auslese in the store for $90. If you love Riesling, this bottle has your name written all over it.
But there is only one bottle left and I know most of us aren’t looking to drop 100 smacks on Riesling. You should come try our SJ Montigny Kreuznacher Riesling Kabinett. Its that earlier harvested type I mentioned before that tends to have a little less RS (residual sugar). This Riesling is pale and the nose is dominated by green tree fruit like apple and pear. You’ll also get a whiff of lemon curd and white blossom. It has good acidity and just a touch of sweetness. On the palate you’ll taste some of that green fruit and some stone fruit, like unripe apricot, green peach, and lychee. This is a great example that shows all of those early harvested characteristics I mentioned before. Riesling should be chilled and is one of the best wines to eat with. Its acidity and touch of sweetness allow it to pair with a wide variety of food, from lighter fare like seafood and salads to spicy Sichuan beef. It is $19.99 and my last suggestion for the week.