Searching for DRY Riesling: my Niagara to Finger Lakes 8 g/L RS Wine Challenge

The view of Lake Ontario from Cave Spring Vineyard
From the Niagara Escarpment. Cave Spring’s view across Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Cave Spring Vineyard

I have a friend who might best be described as a wine aficionado. He likes the good stuff but he also likes good value. And he’s seriously miffed at the price of most international, award-winning wines.

I suggested he drink local. He meh-ed.

Do you like Riesling, I challenged. Yes, he said. But it has to be balanced and dry. Really dry. Ontario Riesling is mostly sweet. My bottom line, he said, 6 – maximum 8 grams of residual sugar (RS).

OK. I’m ON IT, I said excitedly. A DRY January DRY Riesling challenge!! Let me investigate and “report” back…. with producers and a list!

And that – #winelovers – is how I’ve spent my last few weeks: researching, investigating and searching for LOCAL Riesling that’s delicious, balanced, and above all else – DRY.

What an assignment!

Riesling vines with grapes hanging
Cave Spring old vines on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench limestone. Photo credit: Cave Spring Vineyard

I’m a serious Riesling fan-girl. As far as I’m concerned, Riesling is the most beautiful, complex and delicious grape in the white wine world (no disrespect to Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Arneis, Verdicchio, etc!!). US wine importer Terry Theise, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Riesling world, describes Riesling as the master class of wine appreciation and wine loving. “It delivers to the drinker more of everything that can matter about wine.”

Few grapes express and translate terroir – site, microclimate and vineyard practices – like Riesling. Whether Mosel slate, Muschelkalk seashell fossils from Alsace, loamy clay of Lake Ontario or dolomite limestone of the Niagara Escarpment, all soil, subsoil and bedrock provide nutrients that inevitably, shape the grape. Minerality is at the core of Riesling, and although its influence is hotly debated, the very essence and fragrance of this noble grape is often more mineral than fruit. Riesling’s true balancing act – as one winemaker told me – is to bottle all that terroir and the nuances of the vineyard and not let winemaking get in the way.

Riesling shows its true colours and fruit/acid potential in cool climate environments that boast and host  a prolonged growing season. The grape’s hang time, slow and steady fruit ripening and the winemaking team’s courage to leave grapes on the vine well into the fall months, are a critical part of Riesling’s secret sauce. The best Riesling has fruit that’s fully ripe. That means – like a symphony – the skins, seeds and grape juice, must all come together phenolically (I may have just invented a new adverb), to contribute ripe sugars, ripe flavours and ripe acids. Like a symphony, this harvest crescendo requires viticulture and cellar teams be in perfect harmony, too.

Acidity is inherent to Riesling. Balancing (on occasion, taming) Riesling’s robust acids with the grape’s natural sugars is the essence of Riesling winemaking. Pick too early and you get unripe sugar molecules and sweet and sour Riesling (the finish always gives it away). Pick too late, and you risk higher sugars, higher alcohol, higher botrytis/disease pressure and the worst Riesling affront of all – lower acids. When the vineyard and cellar teams achieve sugar/acid equilibrium and that beautiful harmony, the result is delicious, ethereal Riesling. Those who have tasted perfectly ripe Riesling know its signature: beguiling aromatic complexity, gentle layers of fruit, bright crisp acidity, silky texture and here in Ontario, a racy mineral backbone.

Bottle of Five Rows Riesling Wine with glass
Delicious, ethereal 2017 Riesling from Five Rows. Medium-dry (11 g/L RS), so sadly, not in the running.

The Sweetness Scale

Riesling has been called a chameleon grape. It has endless stylistic possibilities and personalities, depending on where it’s grown and how it’s produced.

There are delicious Rieslings at every point on the sweetness scale (which scale? ….more on that in my next post) including bone dry (generally under 3 grams/L), dry (<10 g/L), medium dry or off-dry (10 – 20 g/L), semi-sweet (21 – 50 g/L) and dessert sweet (50 – 150 g/L) versions of Riesling that are described as late harvest (very ripe, often noble rot or botrytis-cinerea affected wine which the French call Vendage Tardives and Sélections de Grains Nobles). Of course, in select parts of the world, where winter temperatures dip to -8 degrees Celsius (17.6 F), there is also the Riesling nectar of the gods and Ontario’s gift to the world – icewine (RS? You don’t want to know and whatever it is, it’s worth it!!).

When do our palates and brains register sugar? Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, Director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, says it’s around 10 grams for the average person and 4 grams for expert tasters.

More than any grape, the breadth of Riesling wine styles offers dry and sweet wine lovers a chance to explore every corner of their palate.

While stylistic diversity is good, my challenge is to find a DRY, nirvanic, sugar/acid Riesling balancing act in a local wine.  So, I start my exploratory with Ontario’s Riesling experts – Cave Spring Vineyard.

Shelf display showing Cave Spring CSV wine getting a 94 point rating

Cave Spring on Riesling’s Challenges and Potential

All this potential deliciousness, yet Riesling’s multiple RS personalities make it a notoriously challenging wine to sell.

Tom Pennachetti, Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Cave Spring in Niagara’s Beamsville Bench wine region says if he can get consumers to JUST TRY Riesling, it sells itself.

“Riesling has a solid following here in Ontario and there’s a Riesling out there for everybody,” he says. “It’s not a trendy grape that’s seen rapid upswings and then trails off like with Grüner Veltliner. It’s consistently grown over the last 20 years.”

But Tom agrees. Riesling is a grape with a past and it requires work, consumer education and open-minded customers.

Blue Nun bottle of wine from 1981
Photo credit: Pinterest

So, what’s the problem?

The albatross around Riesling’s neck is the (largely) (hard-headed) (boomer) perception that Riesling is a sweet wine.  A stigma, I’d argue, that’s justifiable, given most of us boomers (transparency alert!) grew up with ubiquitous, faux 70s and 80s Liebfraumilch (Riesling), most of it sweet, most of it plonk, and most of it hailing from Germany. Shamelessly commercial brands like Blue Nun, Black Tower were the de facto table wines of the day, with Hochtaler and Schloss Laderheim not far behind.

“Most of those wines weren’t even Riesling,” sighs Tom Pennachetti. “They were cheap imitations. Listen, I understand fully the issue people have with its tarnished image from the days of ersatz Riesling. Twenty-five years later, we’re still repairing the damage. But I also think there’s been real progress. Consumers are understanding that high quality Riesling, dry or medium dry, can be a staple white wine for them.” 

Germany is indeed the spiritual homeland of Riesling and they’ve long-since abandoned the mass production wines that sullied the region’s – and the grape’s – reputation. The 21st century has seen a return to premium, traditional styles of Riesling, that feature both dry, trocken styles through a Great Growth or Grosse Gewächs classification system and residually sweet, “classic” expressions of Riesling – known as the Prädikat or “ripeness” scale (the five levels of ripeness at harvest from least to most sweet: kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese (including eiswein) and trockenbeerenauslese).

Across, the Rhine River, France’s Alsace region, is also home to some truly incredible grand cru Riesling. Five hundred years of Alsatian wars and land transfers between France and Germany and Germany and France has resulted in a uniquely French approach to Riesling (51 grand cru vineyards/drier wines/ higher alcohol/bigger fruit).

Where’s the DRY?!

Cave Spring owners photo with three founding partners
Cave Spring Vineyard’s co-founder and CEO – Len Pennachetti, co-founder and winemaker – Angelo Pavan and VP Marketing & Sales and Managing Partner, Tom Pennachetti

But the DRY challenge I face, is proving Ontario’s local wineries produce superb DRY trocken or sec styles of Riesling, and I’m having some serious challenges finding the stuff!

“Well, if he’s hell-bent on dry Riesling, he’s going to love our wine,” says Tom when I share my 6 – 8 gram challenge.

In Niagara, Cave Spring is leading the charge to reduce Riesling’s residual sugar levels. “In our experience, consumers do tend to drink dry as they get older, and boomers have that history. Mature millennials – between 30 and 40 – they’re pretty discriminating too, and that’s when fine wine drinking really starts. They like dry but they’re not closed-minded about a wine being off-dry.” He says younger millennials, the hard seltzer/zero sugar crowd? “They’re pretty sugar obsessed …. we’re definitely noticing that.”

“Here’s where Cave Spring is at now,” Tom explains. “We’ve been shifting to drying up our drier Rieslings over the last ten years. We’re seeing the market moving that way and we’ve been changing our viticulture and cellar practices accordingly.”

He says his usual tasting room interaction with consumers goes something like this: “A customer walks into the tasting room. What should I have? I tell them they should start with our Rieslings – it’s what we’re known for. We’re leaders. It’s what we do best. They say: Oh, I don’t like Riesling. Why? You probably don’t like sweet wines? Exactly. Our Riesling are by and large dry so let me pour you a glass. And we go from there. 99.9% of the time they say WOW. The challenge is getting them over that stigma that all Riesling is sweet.”

Cave Spring currently produces ten Riesling wines, reflecting the full-spectrum Germanic approach to the grape. Six of the wines – the Niagara Peninsula Dry (8 g/L -2018), the Beamsville Bench Estate (7 g/L – 2018), the Beamsville Bench Dolomite (8 g/L – 2018), the Beamsville Bench CSV (4 g/L – 2018), the sparkling Brut (7g/L) and a brand new, bone dry release – the 2018 Prova (<2g/L) – are dry. They also produce two off-dry Rieslings as well as a Select Late Harvest and an Icewine.

Photo credit: Cave Spring Vineyard

Make a Dry Riesling!

Tom’s one piece of advice to his fellow Ontario winemakers? “Make a dry wine. Make your other styles, sure, but if you want to broaden Riesling’s appeal you need to make a dry Riesling.”

In Germany, he says, they know most Riesling’s worth drinking are dry or on the edge of a dry classification. “My wife’s family are producers at St Urbans-Hof (Mosel, Saar) and that shift started happening 25 years ago. It’s taken 25 years to get back to where the great wines were because way-back-when, most German Rieslings were dry.…or maybe at the 10-15 gram “feinherb” level…. or wherever that RS point was where the wine would stop fermenting in the cellar – naturally.”

Tom is quick to point out that Ontario has lots of great wines made in a feinherb medium dry style (9 – 20g/L) that are true, structurally sound, low alcohol Rieslings. “We started to establish Riesling in Ontario in the nineties. At the time, it was one of those ugly duckling grapes that people didn’t think highly of.  And then consumers discovered Ontario made fabulous Riesling and we developed our own local Riesling culture. And in VQA today, it’s the biggest varietal category.” All good, but when I advise Tom of my very limited DRY Riesling findings, he agrees. “Most Ontario Riesling is produced in a MD style. There’s not a lot of dry Niagara Riesling.”

Of course, one of the benefits of Riesling is the lower alcohol levels.

Tom says with climate change, it’s extremely hard for Alsace, parts of Germany and many new world regions to make Riesling under 12% alcohol which is what the Niagara and the Finger Lakes (FLX) regions do really well. Low alcohol requires dogged attention to detail on the canopy and cooler sites to manage exposure and extend the ripening. “The only other places that can do it at a high-quality level is the Mosel Valley in Germany and perhaps the Finger Lakes in New York State. Most of the other wine regions are routinely 12 ½ – 13% and up and that can be – in my opinion – a problem. That’s why so many Alsatian Riesling are medium dry because their potential alcohol is so high. There is no choice but to leave residual sugar.”

Finger Lakes (FLX) Riesling … Speaking of DRY

Four glasses of wine
My last visit to Finger Lakes included a DRY tasting flight at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Niagara’s neighbour to the south has very astutely and strategically, hung their marketing hat on one signature grape: Riesling. Like Cave Spring, most wineries produce a full spectrum of premium quality Riesling styles. When asked to summarize key differences between Niagara and FLX Riesling, the exec director of FLX Wine Alliance said: “you do sweet Riesling really well and we do dry really well, but dry as part of a full range of Riesling.”

Hmmm.

“We’re seeing more producers focusing on dry mineral styles down here,” says Marketing and Communications Manager Alex Jankowski of Wagner Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “The greatest demand we see for wines and the biggest trend here in the Finger Lakes (FLX) is dry and even bone-dry Riesling. There’s a growing appreciation for restrained styles among what we call “acid lovers”. Wines that are perfectly ripened, and still let the fruit do the talking – but they’re mineral and crisp.”

Riesling is far and away the most successful and widely planted variety in Finger Lakes vineyards. It represents about 60% of the vinifera grapes planted in the region. The FLX has pulled off what can only be described as a marketing coup. They’ve put all marketing dollars behind promoting and growing Riesling – just one grape. “We decided to put our best foot forward and it’s definitely our signature grape,” says FLX Wine Alliance executive director Carmela Barbagallo. She says the focus has been on promoting a broad portfolio of Riesling styles, but there’s a burgeoning wine-geek community and a growing preference for dry.

Wagner Dry Riesling range
2017 Wagner Vineyard Dry, Semi-dry, and Select Riesling. Photo credit: Wagner Vineyards

Wagner Vineyards – available at Ontario’s LCBO – has experienced a bit of a rebirth since they broadened their Dry portfolio. The winery won best overall winery in New York State last year and their 2017 Dry Riesling won for best white wine of the year at the New York Wine Classic awards. “I’m so thrilled we were able to share some of the 2017 with the Ontario market,” says Alex. “We see Ontario as a growth opportunity and we really hit that vintage out of the ballpark!” (See Wagner tasting notes in my next post.)

But when it comes to Riesling literacy, Alex agrees with his Niagara neighbour, Tom Pennachetti.  “Riesling isn’t the easiest of wines to sell and it requires more customer education than any other grape varietal. But when customers discover it, there’s no turning back.”

Flat Rock Cellars Riesling
Delicious, award winning, but medium dry (20 g/L RS) …. so not in the running. Photo credit: Flat Rock Cellars
In the running for the 6-8 gram/L DRY challenge!!

The 6 – 8 gram/L Local Challenge ….. Key Insights

I promised my friend, Jeff a “report” (the marketer in me) and a local DRY wine list (next post). Here’s my findings:

Finding DRY 6-8 g/L Residual Sugar/ (RS) Riesling – in Ontario was a challenge. Only half a dozen producers (~) make a Riesling that’s technically considered ‘RS’ dry (the international standard for dry is <8 grams at bottling). These include: Cave Spring x 6, Pearl Morissette, Chateau des Charmes, 13th Street, Pondview, Big Head and Vineland Estates (ish). I purchased all of these….see tasting notes on next blog post.

Cave Spring has earned its international reputation for Riesling excellence. Both the Estate and CSV are delicious, balanced, richly textured DRY wines that showcase Niagara terroir. Buy these wines!!!!

In general, if consumer preferences are trending toward drier styles of wine and lower sugar/lower alcohol beverages (i.e. hard seltzers), I have to wonder – is Niagara “missing the boat”, “leaving money on the table”, by having so few DRY Riesling offerings?

Many Niagara wineries don’t publish RS levels on their websites (wine specs). This was VERY frustrating! They may publish Total Acidity (TA – also called Tartaric Acidity), pH levels, alcohol (ABV), brix levels at harvest, vintage growing conditions, winemaking approach, but it takes a fair bit of sleuth work, to get RS levels. (Of note – the province’s retail monopoly – LCBO – does publish Ontario producers RS levels at the shelf, in communication materials and on their website but I found several discrepancies between RS and sweetness descriptors (see Peller Estates example below).

Many kind souls in winery retail stores told me – off the record – that this (um, lack of RS transparency) is deliberate.

Why is it such a challenge to get RS wine specs from producers? Because most Ontario wineries produce Riesling wines in the medium dry range – or, per the German sweetness descriptors – the halbtrocken or feinherb range. Numerically speaking, this means RS counts typically fall between 9 – 19 grams here in Ontario.

Critical to Note – Riesling RS levels – like alcohol, brix, natural acidity – are very elastic and reflect the vintage, vineyard conditions and winemaker’s approach in a given year. This is a good thing and what artisan winemaking is all about vs producing clinical, formulaic wine year after year.

In isolation – without context, tastings, consumer education, sales support – producers say these RS levels discourage and occasionally shock consumers away from Riesling. This is because the majority of consumers believe/claim they prefer dry wines (and therefore dry Riesling), when in reality, palate preferences and Riesling sales data indicates most consumers prefer medium dry wines. In other words, they prefer some residual sweetness to balance the (often razor-edged) acidity found in Niagara and other marquee Riesling wine regions (Mosel, Alsace, Austria, South Australia – Eden Valley and Clare Valley, Washington State, BC, FLX).

Why such high acidity? Ontario is a cool climate wine region which means wines produced here typically have elevated levels of acidity (yum and lucky us). Most Riesling produced in Ontario is produced with higher RS to:

a) balance the elevated, cool climate acidity associated with our regions and terroir (again: vintage dependant….warmer vintage = reduced acidity, cooler vintage = elevated acidity)

b) reflect a light-bodied, lower alcohol (<12%), mineral style of Niagara Riesling and

c) to ensure VQA tasting panel typicity requirements (see Pearl Morissette Black Ball experience)

Riesling sweetness scale
The International Riesling Foundation allows each winemaker to determine levels of dryness

There is an incredible amount of consumer confusion around sweetness in Old World and New World offerings of Riesling. The International Riesling Foundation has valiantly attempted to address this by encouraging wine producers to use the IRF Riesling scale. How’s that going? I address that in my next post! Tom Pennachetti – for one – “is not a fan” while more than half of producers in the Finger Lakes really like it (shrug emoji).

So close and yet so far!

Bottle of Peller Estate wine that is labelled at 3 different levels of sweetness.
Is it DRY, off-dry or medium sweet?….this doesn’t help!

Tasting Notes – (see next blog post)

Cave Spring Estate – 2017 – VQA Beamsville Bench

Cave Spring CSV – 2017 – VQA Beamsville Bench

Pearl Morissette – Black Ball Cuvée – 2017 – VQA Twenty Mile Bench

13th Street – Expression 2019 – VQA Niagara Peninsula

Château des Charmes – Old Vine – 2015 – VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake

Pondview – Bella Terra – 2019 Wild Ferment – VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake

Big Head Dry Riesling – 2016 – VQA St. David’s Bench

Wagner Dry Riesling – 2017 Finger Lakes – New York State

Vineland Estates Dry – 2017 – Niagara – VQA Niagara Peninsula (10g/L)

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