Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Diversification of Riesling Styles in Australia: The Positives and Negatives (The Summer of Riesling Part 1)

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary Of Defense 2002

Sauvignon Blanc in the New Zealand Marlborough style is the wine equivalent of a Donald Rumsfeld ‘known known’- consumers are all familiar with the style and 90% of readily available bottles have a very similar flavour profile. As a result, it can be marketed quite easily and wineries do not have to waste time trying to differentiate Sauvignon Blanc from other varieties.

Whether as a response to the recent commercial dominance of Sauvignon Blanc, or a desire to diversify, wine makers of other white wine varieties such as Riesling, are increasingly deviating from the 'traditional' style we have become familiar with. For example, there are a number of ‘off dry’ Rieslings that have been released in the last year; Grosset and Petaluma being two high profile examples. Furthermore, I am noticing an increased number of affordable ‘drink now’ Rieslings that have softer apple or tropical flavours (relatively speaking) than the usual lime/lemon. However, a swallow does not make a summer and 2 off dry Rieslings and a few more approachable Rieslings do not make a structural shift away from traditional dry Riesling. If this does represent even a slight, subtle trend towards the diversification of Riesling styles being produced in Australia, what are some of the the positives and negatives of such a move?

Most of the positives I can identify are based around increased sales of Riesling and interest in Riesling.

The small-scale production of different styles may increase and broaden the level of interest in the grape and possibly increase sales across all styles in the process (eg: make it the next ‘it’ wine).

It could be argued that in the face of commercial realities (outstanding Riesling has been produced consistently in the last 10 years, though sales have not risen dramatically), a move to produce small batches of high quality examples of different Riesling styles could boost interest – eg: promoting it as a new, fresh approach to a respected wine. It could also keep the sales of Riesling ticking along until tastes or fashion changes (for the better).

By releasing more off dry Rieslings, local wine makers are possibly creating some Rumsfeld ‘known unknowns’ amongst consumers. A sweet tooth, Sauv Blanc-buying wine consumer would only need one glass of a lemon/lime/chalk and steely acid Riesling to run screaming back to the soft fruity warmth of their New Zealand old faithful. Similarly, a person seeking a dry, crisp white wine would not take kindly to picking up an unmarked Riesling with 22g/l residual sugar when they were expecting a dry wine to have with their steamed fish (probably playing it safe with Chablis thereon in).

An unregulated growth of off-dry/sweeter Rieslings could undo the hard work of Australian Riesling winemakers who have promoted their wines as being (bone) dry for several years. Given that predictability of style is one of the strengths of Sauvignon Blanc, if Riesling were to suddenly become stylistically schizophrenic, it could lead to people avoiding Riesling based on ‘style ambiguity’ alone.

It could also be argued that any wholesale move towards a ‘Sauvignon Blanc Killer’ style is doomed to fail as was the case with the Australian red wine making regions other than in South Australia who tried to mimic the Robert Parker Jr ‘Fruit Bomb’ style in the early noughties. Such an approach is arguably a lose-lose situation. Whether a small scale move (eg: only a small percentage of the wine produced is of a new style) has the same negative impact in the Australian world of Riesling as it did with Shiraz remains to be seen.

Some would argue, with history backing them up, that the dry style of Riesling is dominant for a reason – the dry style produces the finest Riesling. Why change something or dilute something that obviously works (even if it is not appreciated in the mass market)?

Note: Would love to hear of any additional positives and negatives not covered here.

A Solution/Compromise/Way Forward?
I am unsure if there is a perfect solution to address the quandary of diversifying Riesling styles. However, avoiding confusion amongst consumers– through education, marketing, and regulation by wine makers and/or Riesling wine representatives could all assist. Andrew Graham of OzWinereview and others have previously advocated the use of a Riesling sweetness scale on bottles or in shops to avoid style confusion (eg: the International Riesling Foundation’s Riesling Scale, German Wine Classification). I think this is a good idea (on a much simpler level, it worked with alcoholic cider – sweet dry or draught).

However, any use of a scale or standard needs to be backed up with further ongoing education in the broader wine drinking community: A sticker on the back of a bottle will help some people, though for it to be successful, the different Riesling styles in the scale need to be known almost instinctively by consumers to boost sales and avoid confusion – (eg: dry = fish, off dry = spicy Thai, sweet = desert wine). Riesling – dry or off dry- is such a versatile wine to have with food, its versatility deserves to be more widely known amongst consumers. Education, marketing, word of mouth and luck may all come into play in this regard.

In conclusion, there are positives and negatives related to the diversification of Riesling styles in Australia. A diverse range of Rieslings have always been made in the country, and at certain stages sweeter/off dry versions were much more popular and dominant relatively than dry Riesling is today. If some of the aforementioned negatives can be overcome, and if the wine makers themselves can continue to make increasingly good quality, balanced and not over-sweet alternative styles of Riesling, I see no reason why Riesling cannot start eating slowly and subtly into the market share of more dominant white wines.

PS: Once again, throwing this article onto the blog to hopefully generate some friendly debate: we are fans of Riesling, but are open minded on its future. Interested to hear peoples thoughts (be they about off dry Rieslings, traditional Rieslings, progressive german house music, etc :-) ) RB


stu said...

Hey Brown,

Some rambling thoughts from myself:

I would consider the raised profile of Riesling to have a further positive in that it would likely lead to greater shelf-shout/ presence in the big, stack-it-high and sell it cheap stores. Whatever your personal thoughts on the large multiples, they have a place in the distribution chain and are likely to be where the majority of average 'punters' shop.

Increased shelf presence should, in theory, lead to more sales, and this should be coupled with increased profile through in-store tastings. A sort of virtuous circle.

To the point you make about the stylistic interpretations of Riesling eg dry, off-dry, sweet - I agree better labelling will assist. I've recently tried the Grosset off-dry - but it is barely in off-dry territory, at 16 g/l, whereas I believe your typical OD is 25g/l - a technicality some may say.

I really think that with so much focus on the varietal, this is a positive thing. It's getting made, we're talking about it, and heck - we're even drinking it. Maybe it is these last two points why it is being experimented with.

Personally, I'm a relative newcomer to Rizza. Before my own damascene like conversion, Riesling to me was "that sweet German wine" favoured by Aunts. I prefer the dry, mineral driven style. Nigel Greening of Felton Road states that the dry style is for those that don't like Riesling!

So in summary I think there are enough people out there who are passionate enough about Riesling to ensure its safe passage onto our shelves. But then I am sure we thought that about Chardonnay.



Brown said...

Hey Stu,
Thanks for your rambling thoughts to add to my even more rambling thoughts! I
agree with your point about raising the profile of Riesling at the larger stores - I assume there would be a flow-on effect.
We have noted in the past in posts that it is annoying to find 2-4 mainstream bottles of Riesling amongst 30-40 identikit Sauv Blancs. Raising the profile is hard if the Riz is not getting the exposure - a bit chicken or the egg.
Part of the frustration I have is getting people to try Riesling in the first place. When they do, more often than not they like it - same goes for modern Australian Chardonnay.
Once again, thanks for your comments



Edward said...


I always think of riesling as the vinous equivalent to the flu - they keep talking about the next epidemic and it never quite comes, though one day it just might. Last years H1N1 / swine flu came close - at least everyone paid attention for 12 months and now it seems we have mostly settled into a complacent, she'll be right attitude. Still in the background the flu morphs and changes.

Now perhaps it is a long bow, but riesling continues to morph. Different regions and different producers, screwcaps, more residual sugar, use of oak in the maturation, more time of lees. . . One day something will click and the sauviginon blanc market will be infected with the riesling flu and that is all they will drink, then it will fade again. . . Riesling even has a seasonal pattern like the flu. . .

As much as I love riesling, I suspect it will always appeal to fewer people than say a SSB blend or Chardonnay.

Re labeling according to sweetness. I can see the merit. I liked Jeremy Oliver's suggestion of colour coding bottles. Green for dry, blue for off dry and brown for the sweetest. Though again who will educate the market.

Andrew Graham said...

As Edwards says, the biggest question here is 'who will educate the market'?

Brown said...

Edward, AG - agree that the question of who educates the market is very important. It is both relevant and tough to answer. Knowledge of the different strengths of the styles of Riesling has to somehow enter into the common vernacular at restaurants, bars, even BBQs.... much easier said than done, though it only takes one or two trendy brands to make a breakthrough for a style to reach a wider market.
I too fear that Riesling will have less mass-appeal than SSB/SB/accesible Chard styles, though it seems getting people to try Riesling is the hardest aspect (overcoming any pre-set prejudices in the process)of increasing its appeal. A frustrating situation in many ways.



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