While the popularity of wines made from different grapes has changed dramatically in the United States market in the last few decades, one of the grapes considered one of the world’s best remains almost under the radar. Riesling is beloved of wine critics, sommeliers and many chefs, yet Americans just haven’t taken to it. The grape can produce a range of styles from dry to sweet and offers flavors of citrus, green apple and stone fruit underscored by minerality.
One reason Americans don’t choose it is the perception that Riesling is sweet. That discourages drinkers, even though most Americans have a sweet tooth and love slightly sweet wines. They just won’t admit it.
The most popular Riesling in the U.S. is Columbia Valley Riesling from Ste. Michelle in Washington. Ste. Michelle produces more Riesling than any other winery in the world, and surprisingly, it grows most of those grapes in relatively warm eastern Washington, a dry desert shielded from the cool Pacific by imposing mountains.
Ste. Michelle produces seven Rieslings from dry (0.5 percent, the lower limit for dry) to very sweet. If you want to find out what level of sweetness you really prefer, just try them all. Ste. Michelle and many other Riesling producers even include a little scale on their Rieslings telling how sweet they are.
The Waussie Riesling at 0.6 percent sugar is only available at the tasting room or on the website. That’s too dry for many people since Riesling maintains a good level of acidity, which balances the sugar in a balanced wine and is one reason that a completely dry Riesling may seem sharp.
It’s no surprise that Ste. Michelle’s most affordable version, Columbia Valley Riesling, is the most popular. At two percent, it’s medium dry or slightly sweet, far from dessert wine sweet. It also has a suggested price of $9, a real deal. It’s the one I prefer as an aperitif (unless the next two are offered!).
The Eroica Riesling, a joint venture with German’s Dr. Loosen, is 1.3 percent sugar and costs $22. The $28 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling is 1.5 percent sugar. Harvest Select Sweet Riesling at $10 contains four percent sugar (“medium sweet’) and 10.5 percent alcohol. The $28 Eroica Gold Riesling is nine percent sugar. That’s definitely sweet. By comparison, a Coca Cola is about 10.5 percent sugar. The Ethos Reserve Late Harvest Riesling is 24.5 percent sugar and 8.5 percent alcohol. That’s a dessert wine for sure.
Of course, sweetness isn’t the only characteristic of wines. Riesling does have a distinctive taste, just as Sauvignon Blanc does. Chardonnay, by contrast, tastes how the winemakers wants it to, with type and length of oak impact and malolactic fermentation determining much of the flavor.
Rieslings age well due to the acidity, but one peculiarity of Riesling is that some develop a smell of petrol or gasoline as they age. This is highly prized by some connoisseurs, not including me.
Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.