Breweries, Wine, and Cheese

Riesling: It’s Not All Sweet

Riesling: It’s Not All Sweet

The Grape Vine

By Gina Trippi

Riesling is one of those varietals that suffered as a result of mass marketing in the 1970s. And it wasn’t even riesling! It was the Blue Nun. It was Liebfraumilch. And, yes, it was sweet. Liebfraumilch is a blend made from a combination of grapes, including Müller-Thurgau, riesling, sylvaner and kerner.

So riesling got off to a shaky start, with most US customers thinking the grape was always sweet and sometimes even syrupy. “As a group, German wines are falsely thought to be sweet,” says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible.

The Blue Nun had about 9.5 percent alcohol. This is a good time to explain the relationship of alcohol to the level of sweetness in wine. That ratio serves as an easy way for customers to gauge the level of sweetness in a bottle of riesling.

The process is pretty simple. Sugar occurs naturally in grapes. The winemaker adds yeast. The yeast commences eating the sugar, turning it into alcohol. So less alcohol in the wine means more residual sugar, referred to as RS in the wine business, which is the sugar not eaten by the yeast. If you pick up a riesling, check the alcohol content. The lower it is, the sweeter the wine. One with just a touch of sweetness to handle mild to medium heat in foods would come in at about 10 percent alcohol, according to Andy Hale, director of the Asheville School of Wine at Metro Wines. “Riesling is a naturally acidic grape and leaving a little residual sugar offsets what can be scorching acidity. Think unsweetened lemonade.”

At 12 percent alcohol, the 2017 Dr. Loosen riesling from Germany is dry. This wine presents the elegant and vibrant style of riesling produced in the slate soil vineyards of Mosel. The refreshingly crisp taste and dry style make it a perfect partner to sushi and shellfish. Impressed by the lively acidity and peachy aromas and flavors, the respected wine critic James Suckling awarded 90 points to Loosen.

Other clues are on the label of all German white wines. A wine labeled as trocken means bone-dry. Halbtrocken literally means half dry, making this a perfect choice for spicy Thai food. Spätlese, made from late harvest grapes with greater intensity, can be dry or offer a touch of sweetness balanced by the corresponding level of acidity. And auslese, made from very ripe grapes, is lush and sweet.

German winemaking dates back to 100 B.C. when the Romans began the tradition in the region. During the Middle Ages, monks cultivated the vineyards. Napoleon put an end to church-owned vineyards in 1803. The vineyards were divided and sold at auction.

Riesling was mostly only grown in Germany until the late 19th century when German immigrants introduced the grape to the Finger Lakes in New York. Riesling then found its way to California by 1871, and has since moved north to Oregon. With this domestic presence, riesling is finally picking up in popularity.

Join us at Metro Wines on Tuesday, May 21, 5:30–6:30 p.m. as we taste riesling from different countries in different styles. Don’t give up on riesling yet. Try dry!

Gina Trippi is the co-owner of Metro Wines, 169 Charlotte Street in Asheville. Committed to the community, Metro Wines offers big shop selection with small shop service. Gina can be reached at or 828.575.9525.

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