Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Riesling: How Sweet Is It? And How Sweet It Is!

It is easy to argue that no grape better conveys a sense of place than Riesling—from the crisp, fragrant ones of Alsace to Mosel’s off-dry, mineral-laden versions to the tangy, lime-dominated styles that are found throughout Southern Australia. It is because of this immense diversity of styles, that wines made from this grape can be hard to peg down. While differences in the flavors of Riesling from various regions might be subtle, the question that plagues most is simply: Is it sweet?

It is important to know that Riesling can run the gamut from bone-dry to off-dry (aka: a little sweet) to sweet. Here are a few tips (organized by country of origin) for figuring out what’s in the bottle without popping the cork:


As the British writer Kingsley Amis once penned, “A German wine label is one of the things life's too short for, a daunting testimony to that peculiar nation's love of detail and organization.” German wine labels are notoriously wordy and difficult to try to decipher.  A common misnomer is that the term “Kabinett” indicates a dry wine, while the term “Spätlese” indicates an off-dry or sweet wine. This is simply untrue. “Kabinett” and “Spätlese” are terms that point to how ripe the grapes were when they were harvested, but this has no bearing on whether the wine is dry or sweet or somewhere in-between (as the winemaker might choose to ferment all the sugar into alcohol or not in either case).

Far more telling are the terms “trocken,” which translates to “dry,” and “halbtrocken,” which means “half-dry” or a little sweet. Of course, producers are not required to use these terms so it is very possible one might be left in the dark as to a Riesling’s sweetness. Another word that means essentially same thing as “halbtrocken” is “feinherb” though, just because a wine has some sweetness to it doesn’t mean it will be labeled as such.

So then, what to do if your German Riesling isn’t labeled “trocken,” “halbtrocken,” or “feinherb”? The answer is hidden in plain view - look at the alcohol. Alcohol is one of the byproducts of the fermentation of sugar, thus if all the sugar hasn’t been fermented the alcohol will be lower. A good rule of thumb is that if the percentage of alcohol is lower than 12% the wine will have some degree of sweetness. So a Riesling with 10% alcohol by volume (ABV) will have some sweetness, while one with only 8.5% should be very sweet. By contrast, a German Riesling with 12.5% alcohol will be dry. This 12% rule will be helpful for Rieslings elsewhere, as well.


Luckily, if one can successfully grapple with a German wine label, decoding the level of sweetness in a Riesling from elsewhere is comparatively easy. Unless labeled “Vendange Tardive” or “Sélection de Grains Nobles,” all Rieslings from Alsace will be dry.  “Vendange Tardive” basically means “late-harvested,” while “Sélection de Grains Nobles” means that the wine has undergone Noble Rot; both of these styles are essentially dessert wines.


Like Rieslings from Alsace, Rieslings from Austria will be dry.

All Other Countries

For all other countries (USA-included), follow the 12% rule and you’ll have a good idea whether your Riesling will be dry, sweet or somewhere in-between.

Now all that’s left to do is explore the world of Riesling, which should be considerably easier now that you’ll have an idea of what you can expect from a bottle without any help.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

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