04/27/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Riesling Key

Despite the grand popularity in the U.S. of white wines made from the near-ubiquitous Chardonnay grape, many other places have moved on in their wine-selecting tastes. Today, around the world, among consumers and professionals alike, it is Riesling that more often ignites the big-time white-wine passion. Why? One of the reasons is Riesling's ability to partner so well with so many different kinds of food; tap any hipster sommelier with a goatee, and you'll usually find him holding a bottle of Riesling, beaming, avidly discussing the menu.

One could argue that we Americans have been a little slow on the Riesling uptake because of our national delusion that Riesling is necessarily sweet -- and therefore not good for food. Well, Riesling can be sweet, of course -- but it's sweet especially when shipped to America, because foreign producers believe that Americans actually want sweet Riesling! In a place like Germany, top Riesling nation in the world, most consumers drink dry Riesling far more often than sweet!

And here's where the confusion really sets in -- because it ain't often easy, just by looking at a label, to discern whether the Riesling wine inside the bottle is dry or sweet.

All kinds of solutions to this consumer's information dilemma have been attempted. German labels of the older generation, for example, were very detailed in their dry-sweet information; savvy consumers knew, without even tasting, that a Forster Ungeheuer Riesling Kabinett Trocken from the Pfalz is going to be a pretty rich but very dry wine. But how many wine-selectors can do that trick? Americans see the German words and think it's all liquid candy.

Today in Germany, some producers are changing their labels, trying to approach the problem head-on; you'll now see a new generation of German labels that say things like "Dry Riesling." Some are a little cagier, more clever, such as one guy in the Rheingau who has had a big marketing success in America with his Riesling wine called "Ein, Zwei, Dry" -- which alludes to the German for "One, Two, Three," but actually contains the "D" word.

Still, lots of American consumers are not getting the message. And that is why an American organization, the New York-state based International Riesling Foundation, has created a graphic that "takes the mystery out of Riesling." It is called the IRF Riesling Taste Profile, and it is as simple as can be:


This profile now appears on the back labels of some Rieslings in the U.S.; consumers everywhere should get in the habit of turning their prospective bottles of Riesling around, and getting the best information on the wine's relative dryness/sweetness. Then, the consumer can move on to such delights as dry Riesling with raw oysters, medium dry Riesling with smoked salmon, medium-sweet Riesling with Roast Pork and Glazed Peaches, sweet Riesling with an apple tart.

The problem, of course, is not all of the Riesling producers of the world have accepted this system. But progress is being made in getting everyone to sign on. Here's a short list of countries and producers that are now including the IRF Riesling Taste Profile on the back label:

• Doppf
• Leo Buring
• Peter Lehmann
• Pewsey
• Wolf Blass
• Wynn's
• Xabregas

• Schloss Johannisberg
• Schloss Vollrads
• Schmitt Sohne (Relax Riesling; FunF Sassy White; Schmitt Sohne Riesling Qualitatswein)

New Zealand
• Neudorf Vineyards

United States
• Clos du Bois
• Fetzer Vineyards
• Hagafen Cellars
• Jekel
• Scott Harvey Wines (Jana Riesling)
• Trefethen
• Colter's Creek Winery
• Black Star Farms (3)
• Bowers Harbor Vineyards (6)
• Chateau Chantal (2)
• Chateau Grand Traverse (8)
• Left Food Charley (3)
• St. Julian Winery (3)
New York
• Anthony Road Winery (6)
• Atwater Estate Vineyards (3)
• Billsboro Winery (2)
• Casa Larga Vineyards (3)
• Deer Run Winery (2)
• Eagle Crest Winery (1)
• Fox Run Vineyards (5)
• Fulkerson winery (7)
• Glenora Wine Cellars (7)
• Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards (2)
• Heart & Hands Winery (6)
• Hosmer Winery (3)
• Hunt Country Vineyards (2)
• Johnson Estate Winery (2)
• Keuka Lake Vineyards (4)
• Knapp Winery (2)
• Lakewood Vineyards (2)
• Lamoreaux Landing Wine Company (6)
• Lucas Vineyards (3)
• Montezuma Winery (1)
• Red Newt Cellars (7)
• Schwenk Wine Cellars (2)
• Sheldrake Point Vineyards (3)
• Silver Thread Winery (5)
• The Grapes of Roth (2)
• Three Brothers Winery (4)
• Ventosa Vineyards (2)
• Villa Bellangelo (2)
• Wagner Vineyards (4)
• Whitecliff Vineyards and Winery (1)
• Anam Cara (2)
• Ara (1)
• Argyle Winery (3)
• Bridgeview Vineyards (2)
• Brooks Wines (5)
• Chehalem (4)
• Love and Squalor (2)
• Ponzi (1)
• Sweet Cheeks Winery (2)
• Trisaetum (5)
• Willamette Valley Vineyards (4)
Washington State
• Chateau Ste. Michelle (4)
• Convergence Zone Cellars (1)
• Finn Hill Winery (1)
• Kiona Vineyard and Winery (3)
• Knight Hill Winery (1)
• Mercer Estates (1)
• O.S. Winery (1)
• Pacific Rim Winemakers (4)
• Sageland Vineyards (1)
• Steppe Cellars (1)
• Washington Hills--Precept (1)

The actual number of Riesling bottles in the U.S. right now that carry this profile... is 30 million! Not bad. But we lovers of Riesling and clarity can hope that someday soon all bottles will carry it, and that there'll never be any dry-or-sweet confusion again.