The Joys of Riesling

Remember Liebfraumilch? You should probably forget about it.

If you are above a certain age, you likely even swilled your share, at rock concerts or in college dorms, explaining to your friends how much cooler than Boone’s Farm the sweetish wine was. The damage branded versions of these mass-market sweet wines did in the U.S. to the reputation of German producers in general and Riesling in particular is incalculable, but luckily today, most wine drinkers are clean slates, untainted by the excesses of a confused market 40 years ago.

“There are two new consumers of Riesling today,” says Terry Thiese, self described Riesling geek and the man who almost single-handedly has driven the awareness of fine German Rieslings in the U.S. through the producers he imports, distributed by Michael Skurnik Wines. “One are the young wine drinkers who haven’t been corrupted with the false idea that Riesling is uncool, who are just following their spontaneous preferences, who taste the wines and find they like them. The other is a gentleman like me in mid- to late-middle age, for whom the coarser pleasures of wine have ceased to entertain us and is looking for something quieter and lovelier and Riesling steps right up.”

Since Millenials form such an important component of the current core wine drinker, their lack or prejudice is good news, says Jan Barnes, vice president of marketing for Chateau Ste. Michelle, which produces eight different Washington Riesling styles, including one in partnership with German legend Ernst Loosen. “Anecdotally, when you talk with younger wine drinkers in focus groups or in general they don’t carry any baggage from the Blue Nun – Black Tower days, and they’re not opposed to sweeter wines. They’ll drink across many varietals and that’s pretty exciting for us as Riesling producers.”

Much of the attention Riesling, whether from the Old or New Worlds, receives these days is based on its stellar reputation as a sommelier’s favorite, a multifaceted food wine that, depending on its quality and style, can work its way through a meal from amuse bouche to desert. It’s well known for its ability to enhance spicy and Asian cuisines, and is often low alcohol as well, making it a quaffable option for those not disposed to higher alcohol whites.

Still, Riesling sales, which underwent a boomlet in the past few years, have slowed slightly, falling short of 2011’s overall wine growth of 4.7% as reported by the Wine Market Council in January. The varietal still posted an almost 2% increase to maintain its 2% share of the overall market. Additionally, its per bottle average price is fifth highest at $7.86.

The days of double-digit growth may be over at least temporarily, but there are some other positive signs. While the growth has mainly been driven by the work of Riesling-loving sommeliers in the on-premise, retailers have been doing their share.

More Interest at Retail

“There is more activity in the off-premise all the time,” says Bruce Schneider of Wine of Germany. “Clearly it’s a specialized category, but in the last seven years we’ve gone from being a very niche thing that sommeliers drank after work, to now, while it’s not mass mainstream, but the awareness and appreciation of German Riesling is so much broader than it was seven years ago.”

Jamie Koren, European wine buyer for the Wine House in West Los Angeles, says sales have remained stable since the surge a few years ago, which coincided with the greater presence of Austrian wine in the U.S. – while most Austrian whites are Gruner Veltliner, there are many Austrian Rieslings in the market as well.

(While generally synonymous with its largest producer, Germany, Riesling is a significant factor not only in Washington State, where it just edged out Chardonnay in 2010 as leading varietal, but also in Alsace, Australia and Austria.) But Koren notes that on-premise attention and the tough economy has made it harder to sell as much of the higher end wines off-premise. “A high energy sommelier can move wine faster than we can when we put it on the shelf at 70 bucks – that kind of wine is really hard to sell these days. On the other hand I’ve done very well on the value priced, $15 to $20 range,” he says.

Thiese notes that while Riesling can attain a very high degree of intricacy and complexity, at the more attainable price point it’s a lip-smacking and appetizing wine.

The broader acceptance of Riesling’s range of styles has encouraged Jean K. Reilly, MW, wine buyer and director of purchasing at NYC’s Morell & Co.

“Riesling used to have a reputation as a ‘sweet’ wine. Now, more consumers understand that there is a broad range of styles. Off-dry Riesling has always done well at the Morrell store and the Morrell Wine Bar. Just a few days ago, I had a customer complain that we didn’t have enough on our by-the-glass list and we have three,” she says.

Promotional Activity

In the last few years, the International Riesling Foundation, a consortium of producers and regions promoting consumption in the U.S., has seen positive results from such promotions as “Summer of Riesling,” which will expand its budget to attract participation of more off-premise outlets this summer – the promotion has primarily been on-premise in the past two years. The IRF has also established a taste profile wine label that allows producers to describes each bottle on a range from dry to sweet, and it’s garnered greater acceptance, according to IRF president Jim Tresize.

German producers have also been active with their annual “31 Days of Riesling” promotion, which has attracted dozens of participants on- and of-premise in major markets. These efforts, and generally cleaner, clearer labeling has helped demystify and make more user friendly the German, Austrian and Alsatian brands, and the spread of screw caps, even among high end producers, has made casual consumption much easier.

Recently, the drive in Germany to more production of dry Riesling has put yet another twist in the tale; in fact, Thiese says some of the producers he imports would cease making Rieslings with any residual sugar if it weren’t for their popularity in the U.S.

“I’m definitely selling way more dry to slightly off dry, what the Germans call feinherb,” says Keller.  Meanwhile, the very small and pricey 2010 and 2011 German vintages have forced many producers to release older vintages from their cellars at attractive prices to maintain their market presence.

While retail champions are harder to find than sommeliers, most major markets have a handful of retailers who are willing to make the investment in Riesling and the effort needed to sell it.

But Thiese bemoans the fact that few retailers make the point of sale argument for Riesling, and he pushes for mimicking supermarket formats, where staples eggs, milk and bread are shelved at the back of the store. “Someone who comes in for [a mass market Chardonnay] and sees the case stack at the front of the store, sees the wine they came in looking for, pick it up and leave and they’ve only seen 15 percent of the inventory – what sense does that make?”

“How many more chardonnays can you put on your shelf, Mr. Retailer?” posits Barnes of Chateau Ste. Michelle. “Riesling has been around forever, it’s great with food, it’s easy to drink, consumers want it and they’re willing to pay for it – what more is there?”

The IRF: Helping Consumer Tastes

The International Riesling Foundation, an international consortium of wine producers linked by their varietal choice, has in its brief life already had an impact in the U.S. after only a few years in existence. Known recently for its support of the modest annual promotion, “Summer of Riesling,” more important according to IRF president Jim Tresize is the label model the organization developed.

“The IRF Riesling taste profile has really boomed,” says Tresize, who’s also the head of the New York Wine Grape Foundation. “We know of more than 26 million bottles of Riesling that are in the U.S. market this year that bear the label, and probably within a year or two, all the Riesling producers in the U.S. market, whether U.S. producers or not, will have it as well.”

Evolving a uniform and simple guide that producers could agree upon wasn’t easy – Tresize credits the work of long-time Beverage Dynamics contributing writer Dan Berger for his work over six months writing the guidelines and mediating conference calls with the many interested parties. But now that consumers are becoming accustomed to finding the label guide, it’s seen as a boon to sellers who seek to demystify traditional German terms used to express sweetness.

Producers select the arrow placement (“We’re not going to be the wine police,” Tresize says), using technical guidelines for those categories – Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet. The design can be used on labels, merchandising materials, web sites and elsewhere, with the goal to establish “a common, simple, consumer-friendly system for identifying Riesling tastes,” according to the IRF website.


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