Riesling: to drink, or not to drink?

Riesling: to drink or not to drink?

You might think that the wine trade is all about selling wine. Simples, right? Then how come we in the trade can talk until we’re blue in the face about certain wine styles but consumers just don’t seem to get them?

This disconnect came up recently at a frankly fantastic Riesling masterclass I was at in Australia in the Clare Valley, hosted by Kevin Mitchell of Kilikanoon and Jeffrey Grosset of his eponymous winery. (And apologies as I know we monkeys have been posting rather a lot about our fabulous travels lately. If it makes you feel better our exams are now looming imminently and we are fast turning from the calm carefree monkeys of our travels to little stressball monkeys who are tearing their fur out with the amount of study ahead of us). But, I digress – onto the Riesling. We were lucky enough to be presented with a flight of 2012 Rieslings and then a flight of the same wines from older vintages back to 2003. As a whole the wines were superb. The 2012s were taut, citrus dominated wines with floral blossom notes adding prettiness. The older wines had developed some of those classic aged Riesling toastiness and honey notes along with stony minerality. All were bone dry with sharp-as-a-knife acidity.


Fast forward to the end of the tasting and a discussion about why consumers don’t seem to appreciate these wines. For as much as we were all bowled over by the precision, length and elegance of the wines, Riesling just doesn’t seem to be something that is on many consumers radar. And this is no recent phenomenon. For years there have been rumours among the trade of Riesling being The Next Big Thing, but it just hasn’t happened. First there was Marlborough Sauvignon, then Pinot Grigio and now it looks to be the turn of Moscato. And yet, on the face of it, Riesling isn’t so dissimilar from either Sauvignon or Moscato. It is another aromatic white grape, made in a fruity unoaked style – crisp and refreshing.
So, what is holding it back? Well, for a long time Germany and Liebfraumilch was blamed and the trade assumed consumers didn’t like Riesling as they thought it would be sweet. Well, a) I’m not sure that’s a valid argument anymore as those wines had their heyday at the end of the last century and I doubt consumers today remember them, and b) it turns out consumers actually quite like wines with a bit of sweetness. Most commercial Sauvignons will have a few grams of residual sugar to balance that zesty acidity and Moscato is made in an unashamedly sweet style. Personally I think it’s a simple case of price. The average bottle price in the UK is just over £5 a bottle. From a small bit of research, I can tell you at the time of writing Tesco currently sell at less than £6 a bottle 11 Pinot Grigios, 12 Sauvignon Blancs and a mere 1 Riesling. Ok, not the most scientific study ever but I suspect further analysis would help prove with my point: Riesling just isn’t that cheap. Now, whether that is consumer-driven or due to vineyard/winery factors is an entirely different (potentially quite interesting) matter.
Where does this leave Clare Valley Riesling? Well, interestingly, many of the winemakers have cottoned onto the fact that consumers like a bit of sweetness in their wines – and so there has been a recent emergence of new off-dry styles. These wines use a touch of residual sugar to balance that searing acidity, giving a softer – dare I say it? – more consumer-friendly wine. And talking to Jeffrey Grosset over dinner that evening I was left in no doubt that he sees big potential for this new style of Australian Riesling.
I’m not sure if Riesling will ever be the next big thing, but I’m also not sure that’s really a problem. For those of us who have discovered the variety and fallen in love with it, it is perhaps enough to enjoy the wines, share them with like-minded friends – and merely raise an eyebrow to those consumers who would rather be drinking Sauvignon Blanc. But that’s another story evil monkey will doubtless touch on in the future.

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