Wine Thoughts Blog:

Some Thoughts on Dry Riesling

May 31, 2011

My interest in, and some would say my obsession with, dry Riesling was given a boost recently as I attended a seminar on dry Riesling at the German Wine Fair in Toronto. I think that my recent report reflects the excitement of the seminar and pretty clearly details what I learned. But I want to elaborate on some of the ideas, partly in reaction to some comments I have received, and partly to bring the discussion into the context of the Ontario wine scene.


I want to be clear that I understand that dry Riesling is just one of a range of styles. I'm certainly not implying that dry Riesling is intrinsically "better" than other styles of Riesling, although it is a style (or indeed itself a range of styles) that I personally like very much. I actually enjoy all styles of Riesling when they are well made. But I will say, without justification here, that I find truly dry Riesling in the German model discussed below to be a more versatile match with more types of food than Rieslings with noticeable residual sugar, especially when they have not been extensively aged.

It is also a style that I think is largely missing from Niagara Riesling. I find this disappointing, and tend to think this is a mistake. I've chatted with a number of winemakers about this, and in many cases they have told me that they prefer dry Riesling, but they find it hard or impossible to sell. Since I'm not the one with "skin in the game," I'm not at all offended if my views are deemed irrelevant! Wineries have to make what they think is the best business decision. But I think there is a little more to say on the subject than the old saw that customers talk drier than they drink. After all, people do drink dry Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, so why is Riesling different?

In fact Riesling isn't different from Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, at least in Germany. As I point out in my article, the panel of German winemakers and exporters emphasized that roughly 50% of German Riesling is dry, and that almost all of this is drunk within Germany. Germans drink dry Riesling and export sweet. This was confirmed by other exporters at the walk-around tasting, and most of those were providing samples only of non-dry product. So while it's clear that most of the world thinks of Riesling as off-dry or sweet, isn't it interesting that the Germans themselves have migrated to dry Riesling for everyday drinking?

I think that an important reason for this is that the approach to dry Riesling presented by the German winemakers panel was very different from what I, at least, perceive the approach to be with drier examples of Riesling from Niagara.

The background you need to know is that, as a rough rule of thumb, less ripe Riesling grapes (and the wine made from them) have higher acidity, with flavours very much in the grassy and citrus spectrum. That's the tingly lemon-lime sweet-sour tipple that we often enjoy. As the grapes ripen, acidity naturally begins to fall, sugar builds up in the grapes, and flavours evolve from pure citrus, into softer stone fruit (peach, apricot), and finally on to more tropical flavours such as pineapple. I have found, and I believe this is a perception shared by others, that with Niagara Rieslings the riper, softer flavours are often accompanied by more residual sugar and perceived sweetness. This, assuming the generalization is indeed true, is a natural function of both lower acidity and more natural sugar in the riper grapes.

I've mostly found that Niagara Rieslings with less residual sugar have more acidity, and this fits with the thumbnail overview I just gave: they have less residual sugar and higher acidity because they probably started with less ripe grapes that contained lower levels of sugar. But such wines are seldom completely dry because the high levels of acidity would be too overpowering without some residual sugar to balance the acidity. This naturally leads to the idea that balance in Riesling is, first and foremost, the relationship between acidity and residual sugar.

As I mention in the article, the dry Riesling model presented by the German winemakers was very different. They fully acknowledge the need to balance acidity, but they don't try to make dry wines from high-acidity grapes. Rather they use riper spätlese and auslese grapes without botrytis, where ripening has already lowered the acidity, and then ferment them dry. Since the grapes are riper and have higher sugar content (likely 21 to 24 Brix by my calculation), potential alcohol is higher, in the 11.5% to 13.5% range. The higher alcohol is actually welcomed, and the fuller body and roundness of alcohol is viewed as part of the balance for the remaining acidity. Some of the producers also promote the use of extended lees contact in either stainless steel or neutral oak, which helps create a full round style that balances and softens the effect of acidity. Aging also helps soften the acidity.

I should mention that for a Riesling to be labeled as "dry" or "Trocken,"(1) it must have less than 4 grams/litre of residual sugar, or up to 9 g/l provided that total acidity is within 2 g/l of the residual sugar. In other words, a Riesling with the maximum 9 g/l of residual sugar qualifies as Trocken as long as TA is 7 g/l or more. The International Riesling Foundation definition is less stringent, allowing that (within "normal" pH levels) for Riesling to be classified as Dry, it must have a ratio of residual sugar to total acidity of less than 1.0. Thus a wine would be dry with 10.5 g/l of residual sugar if its total acidity were greater than 10.5 g/l.

I'm not saying that there are no Rieslings from Niagara that would qualify as Trocken, but the closest I've found so far is the 2008 Reserve Riesling from Rosewood, with 9.3 g/l of residual sugar and 9.9 g/l of acidity – Dry on the IRF scale, but just above the maximum level of residual sugar to be Trocken. If memory serves, I also believe that the 2008 Roman's Block Riesling from Hidden Bench would have qualified as Dry on the IRF scale, but it had higher levels of both acidity and residual sugar than the Rosewood. At the moment I'm not aware of any other current local examples that would qualify as Dry (IRF) let alone Trocken.

At the time of writing this, the end of May 2011, there is just one Trocken Riesling available at our liquor monopoly, the LCBO. It is the 2009 Weingut Familie Rauen Kabinett Trocken, for $14.95. It is not as complex as the ones I was fortunate to taste at the Toronto Seminar, but it's an interesting contrast to the sweet-sour Riesling experience that we so often find here.

I don't mean to imply that our local winemakers aren't aware of this approach to dry Rieslings. They may be very aware of it, and they may have good reasons for not liking this approach, or for thinking that it is not suitable for Niagara Riesling or its potential audience. It's just that I have never heard much discussion of dry Riesling along these lines. I have always been told that residual sugar is required for both balance and for aging. The German winemakers panel clearly rejected both premises as necessities. For them, balance is not just a function of acidity with residual sugar, and residual sugar is not required for aging.

Of the dry Rieslings we sampled, the residual sugar ranged from 4 g/l to 9 g/l. Think of this profile: 6.9 g/l of acidity, 4 g/l of residual sugar, fermented with indigenous yeast, extended lees contact in neutral oak, and vintage 1993. You can see my tasting notes in the accompanying article for this 1993 Lingenfelder Riesling. Sounds like the profile of lots of ageable dry whites made from Chardonnay, doesn't it? I just wonder: if consumers tried wines like this, and of course versions from current vintages, might they not see them in the same light as unoaked Chardonnay with respect to food versatility?

Riesling lovers often bemoan the fact that this grape, that many consider to be the most noble white grape of them all, has such marginal acceptance among the wine drinking public. Could style be a factor? Just wondering ...

(1) An interesting side note, the term Grosses Gewächs or "Great Growths", can be applied only to dry wines from the top vineyards that are so designated. The restriction to dry or Trocken may change in the future, but it is interesting that this restriction has been imposed in the first place, and indicates the importance of dry Riesling to the wine industry especially outside of the Mosel. A bottle labeled as being from a Grosses Gewächs vineyard is unlikely to be labeled as Trocken, since that's implied.