The Puzzle of Riesling

riesling grapesEric Asimov takes up one of the enduring mysteries of the wine world.

The dry white wine can’t seem to win fans. Are wine lovers generalizing from bad wines, or is riesling’s appeal profound but too narrow?

Like most other wine writers, he adores Riesling for its versatility, balance and expressiveness. Yet sales of Riesling never seem to take off, languishing far behind Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris at least in the United States.

It isn’t for lack of trying. Over the past 15-20 years sommeliers and wine writers have made a concerted effort to promote Riesling as the white varietal we should be drinking. But to no avail.

Asimov runs through various explanations. Maybe it’s too sweet? But there are now many dry Rieslings readily available. Perhaps it’s too acidic—but unless you’re buying bone dry Aussie Riesling it’s almost always balanced with some sweetness.

He settles on the view that people are generalizing from a bad experience.

Not that people should be compelled to like any particular type of wine, but we all tend to generalize from bad experiences. We might have had a disappointing bottle — it could be riesling or chardonnay, merlot or zinfandel, natural or orange — and, not unreasonably, conclude that we dislike that style.

It’s the fallacy of leaping to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence.

But I don’t see how this explains the public’s indifference toward Riesling. As he admits, you can have a bad experience with any varietal. Surely all those Chardonnay fans have had a bad experience as well.

He raises the possibility that it’s appeal is “profound but too narrow.” But there is so much diversity among Rieslings that I don’t think you can say the appeal is narrow. There are fruity Rieslings and more minerally ones. Some are dominated by citrus aromas, others by stone fruit. You can drink them young or with age (in fact they age beautifully). They range from being so sweet they qualify as dessert wines to being bone dry with searing acidity and everything in between.

And they are by far the most versatile white wines to pair with food. They are the only wines that will work with a wide variety of international cuisines that are spicy and/or sweet. If you’re in doubt about what white wine to serve with a meal, Riesling is almost always the safe bet.

So I don’t understand why their appeal would be narrow.

My guess is that this diversity is precisely the problem. Most consumers who are not difference hounds prefer predictability. But unless you know the producer it’s hard to predict what style of Riesling is in the bottle. The German classification has always been difficult for U.S. consumers to understand and Riesling is so sensitive to terroir that even small geographical differences can result in lots of variation. New York Riesling producers helpfully put a sweetness scale on the label. Perhaps that might help if it’s more generally employed.

When you look at the white wines most consumers prefer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, both have a standard flavor profile that commercial producers who sell to the U.S. market aim for.  For chardonnay, it’s tropical notes, a little buttery with a medium plus body. For Sauvignon Blanc it’s the signature gooseberry note with grassy highlights and invariably crisp.

Riesling’s versatility and diversity inhibit its market potential. It’s virtues are its Achilles heel.

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