On a recent visit to Rooster Hill Vineyards, owner Amy Hoffman said something that got my attention.
The new Rooster Hill Dry Riesling has .8% residual sugar, or 8 grams of RS. Their dry riesling used to have 4 grams. There's a reason for the change.
"Our experience has shown that .4 is a niche product," Hoffman told me. "There's a much wider and more accepting market when your dry riesling is at .8."
Today my colleague Lenn Thompson reviewed a Finger Lakes dry riesling that received one of his highest scores: 91 points for the Red Tail Ridge 2008 Dry Riesling, a wine with -- did you guess it already? -- exactly .4 RS.
So what gives? Is there a market for riesling at its driest? Or is Hoffman correct, and should Finger Lakes winemakers protect their sales by adding a few grams more sugar?
Ponder your favorite rieslings from around the world as you ponder the following.
It's not easy to make a world-class riesling when RS is extremely low
"Rieslings that are four grams or less do seem to be a tough sell," says Jeff Houck, winemaker at Lucas Vineyards on Cayuga Lake. "I would have to agree with (Amy Hoffman)."
Houck finds a more willing market with his semi-dry rieslings, and that's a common sentiment across the region.
"I might agree that four grams may represent a style that is a bit more edgy, or firm, or hard," says Dave Whiting, winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on Seneca Lake. "Eight grams might be a bit smoother and more voluptuous. I'm not sure what is more widely acceptable."
There is a world of difference between a bone-dry Finger Lakes riesling that is jarringly off and a bone-dry Finger Lakes riesling that is electrically stimulating. Some producers are simply fermenting riesling until essentially totally dry, without regard to sugars, acids, and the quality of fruit. Lenn and I have come to refer to these rieslings as showing a style of "acid water." They are so buzzing and garish that there is almost no fruit upon which to hang all that acid.
It is no wonder those wines do not sell briskly.
But when the fruit is good, from a prime site, and the winemaking is careful and thoughtful and considers all elements, then a bone-dry riesling can be a beauty. It can rattle your senses and use the acidity to stretch out the finish. Red Tail Ridge's 2008 Dry Riesling is a nice example, as are the dry rieslings from Ravines Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake.
"I do believe that working at the low sugar level requires extreme precision in the balance of the wine," says Ravines winemaker Morten Hallgren. "Any imperfection, phenolics or lack of balance will show up. Having higher sugar levels will allow you to disguise these flaws, and it's commonly done that way. But the lower sugar level seems to allow a greater purity and focus of aromas and will offer more satisfying food pairings."
Hallgren uses that word -- balance -- to make a vital point...
Sugar really has (almost) nothing to do with it
"If the fruit is right, a wine can for sure handle a sugar level as low as four grams or even lower than that," says Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company on Seneca Lake. "It can still be very well accepted by a broader audience. Balance is the key word. If a wine is balanced it will sell!"
But this point goes both ways.
"A wine with eight grams of sugar can be off balance, too," Reinhardt points out.
At Lucas, Houck makes the same observation. "There are all kinds of variables that would influence the wine's balance. The acidity, pH, and ethanol would all play a part in the wine. The sugar is only one component."
Still, Houck admits, "Usually I find the very dry rieslings to be edgier but probably a bit much for many drinkers."
So is this category of riesling a "niche product" destined to fizzle in the tasting room or stores shelves? Vinny Aliperti, winemaker at Atwater Estate and Billsboro Winery on Seneca Lake, can envision more wine drinkers embracing the bone-dry style.
"Bone dry, four to eight grams, is a growing niche in the Finger Lakes," Aliperti says. "I expect it will continue expanding. Ten to twenty grams, especially in years like 2008 and 2009, is closer to the most widely acceptable style of riesling."
Some trends fade away, while others take time to gain wider acceptance. That's exactly the point made by Paul Brock, an instructor at Finger Lakes Community College and the former head winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake.
"Either sugar level can be balanced in a respectable dry style and successfully marketed to the masses," Brock says. "Acid, pH, aroma and body are all going to weigh heavily on the acceptance in a blind tasting. What is niche in one winery or region could be totally widely accepted at another winery or region. Things could change over time."
The future of Finger Lakes riesling
Debates like this one reveal that Finger Lakes riesling can be world-class without being forced into one specific box. The region needs more diversity of style in its riesling, not less, and it is turning out stunning wines at all sugar levels.
But the pursuit of a world-class bone-dry riesling must be handled delicately. There are enough poor examples on shelves right now. Enamel is a nice asset for a set of human teeth, and searing it off with acid water is an unkind trick to turn.
Thrillingly, more producers are learning to combine site and fruit with the care necessary to make a dry riesling to rattle the mind and inspire the senses. Each customer will find their own preference, and the range of options is vast. As it should be.