When I first got the press release announcing the International Riesling Foundation's (IRF) newly proposed Riesling Taste Profile, I didn't give it much thought. It seemed a bit frivolous to me. Just another act of oenological masturbation -- only satisfying or useful for one or a small group of people. I dismissed it really.
But then I started seeing more and more coverage of it. Sure, the stories read an awful lot like the press release I got, but I'm still left asking "What is the point?"
The concept is simple enough and on the surface it makes some sense. The IRF has identified four 'styles' of riesling: dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet, and to help wine makers consider which terms to use for various wines, the committee developed a technical chart of parameters involving the interplay of sugar, acid, and pH which "helps determine the probable taste profile of a particular wine."
They have also designed labels (examples here on the right) that producers can put on bottles of their riesling to help consumers, I assume, predict how a wine will taste... at least in terms of sweetness vs. acidity.
Several Finger Lakes producers already use graphics like these on their back labels for all of their wines, so this really isn't anything new. It's just a bit more formalized. The technical definitions are:
Dry. Here the ratio between acid and sugar would not exceed 1.0 acid to sugar. For example, a wine with 7.5 grams of acidity and 6.8 grams of sugar would be in the same category as a wine with 9.0 grams of acid and 8.1 grams of sugar. Similarly, a wine with 12 grams of sugar and 12 grams of acid would be dry. Notice also that wines that are totally or “near-totally” dry (such as 4 grams per liter) will have a much lower ratio. For instance, a wine with only 3 grams of sugar and a total acidity of 6 grams per liter will have a ratio of .5, and clearly the wine is dry.)
As to pH: we assume that the range of pH for most rieslings is between 2.9 and 3.4. So 3.1 is the “base” pH with which most wine makers will be working. So if the pH of wine is 3.1 or 3.2, it remains in this dry category. But if the pH is 3.3 or 3.4, it moves up to Medium Dry. (And if the pH is 3.5 or higher, the wine maker may wish to move the wine to Medium Sweet.)
Medium Dry. Here the ratio is 1.0 to 2.0 acid to sugar. Example: a wine with 7.5 grams of acid could have a maximum sugar level of 15.0 grams. And if the pH is above 3.3, it moves to Medium Sweet, and if the pH is as low as 2.9 or lower, the wine moves to Dry.
Medium Sweet. The ratio here is 2.1 to 4.0 acid to sugar. Example: a wine with 7.5 grams of acid could have a maximum sugar level of 30 grams. And again, the same pH factor applies as a level two wine: if the pH rises to 3.3, you move up to Dessert, and if the pH drops to 2.9 you move to Medium Dry. And if the pH is 2.8 or below (highly unlikely), the wine could be called Dry.
Sweet. Ratio above 4.1, but using the pH adjustment, a sweeter wine with a ratio of, say, 4.4 might actually be moved to Medium Sweet if the pH is significantly lower.
I'll admit that I'm not as technically savvy as I'd like to be when it comes to wine, but I'm not sure that pH should have so much weight here. Maybe a winemaker or someone else in the industry can help clarify for me.
So those are the basics. Why does this seem so useless to me? There are a few reasons:
Why Complicate Wine Labels?
I could be wrong, but there seems to be a trend where wine labels are being simplified, especially in the riesling world (Germany anyone?). In a sense, we're dummying down riesling while making things more complicated. Speaking of the Germans, aren't they already doing something like this with terms like trocken, halbtrocken, and the ripeness levels (Kabinett, Auslese, etc.)
Even though these proposed label additions are relatively small and are certainly straight forward, do they really offer that much information? Which leads me into...
What Do They Really Tell You?
These suggested standards only tell the consumer about the acid/sugar balance. What about flavors? texture? weight? I like steely, minerally riesling. It can have some sweetness, or it can be bone dry. Why is sweetness (and perceived sweetness) being pushed as the most important thing? It's not.
Does the Average Consumer Know What They Like, Anyway?
This is probably the most important argument I have against this system. Will Joe Winebuyer know whether or not he prefers Medium Sweet vs. Medium Dry riesling? Labels like "Dry" and "Sweet" are a bit less problematic (though the technical specifications proposed leave a lot of wiggle room within those classifications as well), but terms like Medium Sweet and Medium Dry are awfully hard to define across all palates. What I consider Medium Dry, I'm sure someone else will consider Medium Sweet.
Does this Matter if Only a Handful of Wineries Use It?
I don't think so. Unless it's a true standard, it's pretty useless. And I don't see this becoming a standard.
Why Do I Need/Want to Know?
For me, one of the most exciting things about opening a bottle of wine is NOT knowing what to expect. Sure, I know generally what I'm going to get if I'm opening merlot vs. zinfandel vs. riesling, but the allure is the exploration and discovery, isn't it?
I know that this post is going to come off looking like a rant, and I guess it is. I just think that if you take a step back and look at this whole situation, in context, there isn't much value here. It's just another marketing push with good intentions but little value.
I have a lot of respect for Dan Berger, who spearheaded this initiative, and many of the other members of the IRF. They are smart people who know wine. But I just don't see the value.
Maybe someone can convince me?