Why Riesling's got baggage in UK
What do you call a gathering of self-confessed Riesling geeks? A symposium? A sweet and sour? Or a blank slate perhaps? Chateau Sainte Michelle, the largest producer of the grape in Washington State, went for something a little more predictable. Dubbed the Riesling Rendezvous, the second edition of a two-day conference devoted to this most under-rated (in the UK at least) of varieties mixed alliteration with a sense of hesitant informality.
The event is very different from the International Pinot Noir Celebration, held a week earlier in neighbouring Oregon. Whereas IPNC is all about Bacchanalian excess - consuming as well as tasting large quantities of Pinot - RR is a more responsible affair. The dinners were finished by 8.30pm, leaving delegates plenty of time to study the soil profiles of the Mosel Valley back in their rooms. At times it was almost Germanic.
Appropriately so, perhaps, given that several of Germany's most famous names were present in Woodinville. It was a credit to Ernie Loosen, the co-host of RR, that he
persuaded the likes of Egon Müller, Johannes Leitz and Helmut Dönnhoff to pour their wines for a roomful of producers, retailers, marketers and journalists.
There was also an impressive line up from the rest of what the entertainingly manic moderator, Stuart Pigott, called "planet Riesling",
including Louisa Rose, Judi Cullam and Stephen and Prue Henschke from Australia, Fred Loimer and Christine Saahs from Austria, Blair Walter and Matt Donaldson from New Zealand and Pierre Trimbach from France.
All told, there were some 70 producers from seven countries and, surprisingly from my point of view at least, six US states. I knew that Washington, Oregon, California and New York State made Riesling, but Michigan and New Jersey?
The event was structured around a series of themed tastings: international dry Riesling; international off-dry Riesling; the age-ability of Riesling; Riesling at the table; New World Riesling terroir; and Old World Riesling terroir.
Apart from the food and wine pairing session, held during lunch, each tasting
had anything between 13 and 16 wines. Over the course of two days, that's an awful lot of (too much?) Riesling. It is heresy to say so in such circles, but all that acidity made me long for a glass of good Chardonnay.
Most of the two days was spent discussing what made Riesling special. There was an element of preaching to the long-term converted here, but the question is still worth asking. Pierre Trimbach of the great and eponymous Alsace domaine probably put it best: "Three things - balance, balance and balance." But I also liked the description of Christine Saahs from Nikolaihof. "Riesling has a centre," she
said. "Wines that bombard your palate are all the rage, but Riesling isn't like that."
What else did we learn about Riesling? The honest answer is not much that we
aficionados didn't know already.
It is thrillingly diverse.
It works well with a variety of dishes.
It reflects its terroir more faithfully than any other white grape.
It ages wonderfully, thanks to a combination of acidity, minerality and dry extract.
The one thing we didn't discuss, partly because we were in the
US, was the depressing state of German Riesling sales in the UK. As I have
said before in OLN, Germany
shifts more Pinot Grigio than Riesling in our market. I haven't seen any, more general Riesling stats, but my hunch is that Germany is part of a trend.
Wherever it comes from, be it Australia, Alsace, Austria, New Zealand or Washington State, Riesling is
generally a hard sell. There is growing interest above £5, but punters aren't exactly fighting to join the queue outside their local Threshers.
There is a marked contrast with the
US here. On the other side of the Atlantic, sales have increased by 54% over the last three years and Riesling is regarded as a "hot", as opposed to hot climate, variety. Why? Ted Baseler,
chief executive of Chateau Sainte Michelle identified four things: Riesling's versatility, its food friendliness, its appeal to "new wine consumers" and the fact that top sommeliers and chefs recommend it.
With the possible exception of Baseler's third point, those advantages apply in the UK too. So what's the problem here? Historical baggage is surely the answer. Too many consumers associate Riesling, erroneously, with bargain basement sugar water selling at under £3.
Will this change? Possibly, but not in a hurry. Two things that distinguish Riesling are its complexity and diversity, neither of which appeals to consumers who prefer the comparative simplicity of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and even Chardonnay.
Too many people think that Riesling is sugary and confected - some of the greatest examples have residual sugar, but that's another matter - when it can be anything from bone dry to dessert wine sweet. The Riesling message is not easy to convey because it is comparatively complicated. Therein lies its strength, but also its greatest weakness.