'Oh!... uh... It's - uhm - sweet'. This statement is followed by embarrassing silence at the tasting that I am just hosting: Ten tastebuddies, some more, and some less experienced are meeting seven German rieslings that I have picked. We just had a first sip from an off-dry Riesling, a Kabinett Oehlberg from Weingut Schaetzel, one of the leading winemakers in Rheinhessen. We taste blindly, and there it is, almost like a verdict: 'sweet'. Those actually enjoying the wine are almost scared off from coming forward with their opinion. Then comes another round of swirling, sipping, slurping and we end up with a pretty much even share of people liking and disliking it.
So what's wrong with sweetness in rieslings? I am tempted to blare out that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a sweet riesling! But there are a couple of IF's: IF it is a well crafted wine; IF I expect it to be sweet; and IF I have it with the right food. That's three conditions.
If there is anybody, anything to blame for the tainted reputation sweet German rieslings have, then it's the plethora of mass produced wines that was popular in the 70es, and widely exported as Blue Nun and other Liebfrauenmilch-type blends. (Still nowadays a large share of winelovers in the US and the UK believe that all German rieslings are sweet). However, the turn of the century marked a renaissance in wine-making that includes perfectly crafted rieslings. Amongst them are formidable sweet ones: not cloying, but perfectly balancing 'restsüsse' (residual sugar) with refreshing acidity.
Ever had something in your mouth that tasted completely different from what you expected? In most cases that makes for a bad surprise. Avoid the surprise by reading your label. There are three indicators for sweetness in your riesling: an alcohol level below 11.5%; a late harvest indicated as 'Auslese'; or the terms such as 'lieblich', 'feinherb', 'restsüss'. If you find 'trocken' on your label, it is definitely a dry wine. Knowing what you are pouring or getting served will lift your experience - specially if you consider the third IF, a proper pairing.
For me there are three ways to enjoy a sweet riesling (I am not talking desert wine, but off-dry): Just on their own they make a perfect companion to a long summer night on the porch - as a plus the low abv will give you a longer mileage. Also, sweet rieslings make very good friends with a cheese platter before finishing off with proper dessert - or as a meal in itself, depending how fond you are of cheeses. And finally people report sweet rieslings to be a perfect match for Asian food. Having lived in Asia many years myself though, I still prefer a crisp beer with spicy dishes.
Although sweet rieslings seem to polarise, with people apparently having clear cut preferences (check out this article in the NYTimes) I'd encourage to go and explore: try a dry riesling and check its sugar contents... you'll be surprised how much sugar there still is. Or, if you are a sweet riesling hater - go for a therapy and have a very sweet Trockenbeerenauslese combined with blue cheese on brioche. If that doesn't fail on you, then work your way backwards towards Auslese. It worked very well for me, creating a much bigger world of rieslings to taste from and enjoy.
Not too long ago, I would have raised my eyebrows at anybody suggesting he or she was fond of sweet rieslings. I stand corrected. There is nothing wrong with sweet rieslings.
Come and try some at one of my tours.