If I sat down with the average wine drinker and played a word association game with grape varietals it might go something like this:
Riesling...Sweet (and probably accompanied by a yuck face)
At this point I would pause and silently grab a bottle of Riesling so dry, so "trocken," that it could double as enamel cleaner. Pouring it blind (meaning, I'm not going to show you what's in my hand -- don't worry, no blindfolds needed) I would simply say, "Try this." I would go for shock value, screaming high acid -- the polar opposite of that sweet Liebfraumilch you drank in your college days.
Across the country right now thousands of sommeliers, servers and bartenders are essentially replaying this scenario over and over again with guests on a nightly basis. We have all signed onto Summer of Riesling, the program of James Beard Award-winning wine director Paul Grieco, and thus have pledged to prophesize, educate and inform for the sake of the most Noble of all white wine grapes...Riesling. Pouring at least three Rieslings by the glass and giving guests the chance and opportunity to try, to taste and to (re) discover one of the world's most misunderstood and most versatile grapes.
A little over two weeks ago these participating restaurants, wine-bars and retail shops received schwag-bags of tattoos, buttons, t-shirts and stickers. Not included in our satchel was the greatest tool for translating the contents of a bottle of Riesling, the International Riesling Foundation's Riesling Taste Profile Scale.
This simple graphic is worth all thousand proverbial words pictures are known for. With 26,000,000 bottles of Riesling bearing the IRF scale shipped to or produced in the United States it has almost become strange to see bottles without it.
There is a bit of science to the scale involving the balance of sugar and acid with adjustments for pH, but essentially equal amounts of sugar and acid balance each other out and even a wine that has sugar in it can taste dry if there is enough acid. One can think of Riesling as being in the same beverage family as drinks like the Margarita. The best Margaritas have this ying and yang of the lime and sweetness but also don't have too much of either that they mask the Tequila. This is the same for Riesling -- flavors of limes, peaches and slate rock should be the focus with the sugar and acid doing a balancing dance, preparing the palate for the next bite of food.
My hope is that the IRF scale can help to establish consistent language usage, to turn the normally subjective perception of sweetness into one where the average wine drinker can remember where on the scale they like their Riesling and that the sommelier or server also speaks the same language and knows what on their list fits the bill. A pipe dream maybe, but really no different than remembering that you are a Paulliac lady that likes Blanc de Blancs to start and Pinot Gris with the appetizers. Hint: Try the dry Riesling instead.
Besides the sweetness cliché, there are a few others that ride along with Riesling. "It's the first and last white wine you discover" and "It's the sommelier's favorite grape." Riesling is often the sommelier's favorite grape because it's so flexible with food and can act as a parachute for food-pairings. When in doubt, go with the Riesling: It loves fat, can handle spice and the acidity makes the mouth salivate. That cliché exists for a reason. I do also remember "discovering" Riesling during a trip to Germany when I was 17, my palate was typically tuned to the sweet things in life so I liked most of the inexpensive grocery-store wines we were drinking. I also went through all the stages of white wine drinking; Pinot Grigio acceptance (and then denial), white Burgundy obsession, Albariño infatuation and Grüner exploration but am solidly back to where my white wine drinking began -- with Riesling. I still love many other varietals but the summer time, with its scorching heat seems most appropriate for the annual exploration of the most noble of white wine grapes... It is, after all, the season to celebrate Riesling.
Eric Larkee is the wine director at James Beard Award-winning chef/owner Michael Schwartz's The Genuine Hospitality Group, tweeting @ericlarkee.