Dry Riesling

As sales of all Rieslings worldwide increase, one of the categories that, at least from an anecdotal standpoint, is among the fastest selling is Dry Riesling. Many decades ago, notably in England, dry “hock” was a basic style of wine that was understood by wine lovers. About 100 years ago, some of the world’s most sought-after wines were Dry Rieslings from Germany.

Indeed, the fact that the dry style of Riesling hit a flat spot with consumers for some decades in the latter half of the 20th century may actually have contributed to one of wine’s saddest episodes.

The owner of the famed Schloss Vollrads, Count Erwein Graf Matuschka-Greiffenclau, was passionate about Dry Riesling. In fact, he all but abandoned the sweeter versions of German Riesling in favor of dry wines, and in the mid-1990s he staged a muilti-city tour of the United States to promote them.

The tour went well. Wine writers across the country basically agreeed that the dry versions of his wines were superb and they did, as he had emphasized, work brilliantly with food.

Alas, consumers were a bit slow to understand what Graf Matuschka was speaking about. By 1997, the famed property was some $13 million in debt. That year, the count took his own life, shooting himself on a hill at his famed estate.

A suicide note said, in part, “My life’s work is in ruins.”

Sadly, the rebirth of Dry Riesling is now well understood in more circles than ever, making a strong comeback from that period when Dry Riesling was seen as an esoteric and misunderstood wine. Had the rediscovery of Dry Riesling occurred just 12 years earlier, it would have left Graf Matuschka a hero and not merely a small asterisk in the Riesling history books.

Riesling today has established a record for making great wine in many locations, beginning of course in Germany long ago. German Riesling is widely known for the greatness of its sweeter wines. And part of that success can be traced to price. When trockenbeerenauslesen sell for many hundreds of dollars per half bottle, that does entice wine collectors with the wherewithal to buy them. And so it is assumed that because they are so expensive they represent the pinnacle of German wine making.

And so by contrast, consumers assume that Dry Riesling shouldn’t cost very much.

And here comes a contradiction. Dry Riesling actually is not easy to make, and should cost a lot more than it typically does.

Though Riesling can make a wine that displays its regionality well (the classic examples are the distinctive delicacy of Mosel wines and the relatively richer Rheingaus; the differences between Eden and Clare valleys in Australia; the fascinating qualities of Rieslings from Mendocino’s Potter Valley versus those of Cole Ranch), the fact is that it is not easy to make a Dry Riesling. In fact, the reasons are not hard to figure out if you give it much thought.

A sweeter Riesling (perhaps one with 2% or 20 grams per liter of residual sugar) is crafted to be succulent, the sugar muting to a degree the effect of the acidity. This sugar content can also mask trace amounts of bitterness and can also give a fleshy mid-palate to a wine that needs a bit of assistance.

Dry Riesling, by contrast, is a “naked” wine. It is unadorned and as such reveals its grapes with no coy veil or disguise.

When viewed this way, it is clear than a Dry Riesling must be made from the best fruit a grower can get his or her hands on. It usually means smaller tonnage per acre. And that means the grapes must cost more.

Moreover, once inside the winery, such grapes cannot be pressed as heavily for fear of bitterness, and that means fewer gallons out of a ton of fruit. And in the grand scheme of things, it means that less-than-excellent lots should be blended into lesser wines and not used for the Dry Riesling. Only the very best wines can be used in the final product.

As we all know when we look at the IRF’s sweetness guidelines, not every Riesling has to be “bone dry” to be really tart and crisp. A bit of sugar is often key to making wines succulent while still delivering a dry finish, aiuded by great acid and low pH.

Many wineries now make a wine they call Dry Riesling even though they contain some residual sugars. And German Dry Riesling, called Trocken, often contains up to 0.9% residual sugar. These wines are often bone dry on the tongue since the acid levels are high and the pH levels very low.

An Australian winery put out an exceptional Dry Riesling recently that sells for more than $30 a bottle. I heard one wine lover claim the price was too high. But when you taste such a wine, you can understand the sublime character it delivers.

It is a character that only Dry Riesling delivers, and for that privilege, I’m perfectly willing to pay a little more.

Dan Berger

P.O. Box 5857

Santa Rosa, CA 95402