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07.30.2008

How Simple Should Wine Get?

As an advocate for wine, I try to help people enjoy wine more (or for the first time) in whatever small way I can. I recommend what I think are interesting wines that range in price from $10 to several hundred, and I'm always consciously careful about explaining aspects of winemaking or the wine business to my readers whenever they seem relevant or necessary.

At the same time, however, I strive desperately not to dumb down wine. It is a complex beast in some ways, and part of its beauty is in its complexity. This desire to avoid oversimplifying wine can be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, wine drinkers shouldn't have to deal with complexity when they're just trying to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, wine drinkers might appreciate their wine even more if they understood some of its complexity, and in some ways it's a shame to watch someone consume a glass of wine in complete ignorance of its qualities, no matter how much they are enjoying themselves.

It's quite easy for such thinking to drive one into snobbery or into its opposite, both of which were perfectly caricatured in the main characters of the movie Sideways -- Miles who wouldn't drinking any fucking Merlot, and Jack who thought everything was pretty good as long as it got him drunk. I've certainly seen my share of real world examples of both -- people who suggest with some degree of seriousness that American consumers who can't tell anything about a French wine by reading the label just shouldn't be allowed to buy any of it, and people who go to big public wine tastings with the singular goal of drinking as much wine as possible in the shortest possible period of time.

Ultimately, however, I think the wine world is still a bit too intimidating for its own good. The complexities of the wine world keep some people from buying and enjoying wine that really need to be brought into the fold.

Which is why I am glad to see even nascent efforts such as the newly proposed Riesling Taste Scale. The first major initiative of a newly formed organization with the lofty title of International Riesling Foundation, the Riesling Taste Scale sets out a standard classification of Riesling primarily around its level of sweetness.

This scale addresses a common and somewhat annoying problem that can plague even experienced wine lovers: many times it is very difficult to determine just how sweet the Riesling is that you're buying. This is especially true for anyone who has tried to buy German Riesling, even with a basic understanding of the ripeness classifications like Spatlese and Auslese which while they often correspond to the sweetness of the wine, actually measure the sugar level of the grapes before they were turned into wine, and technically have no relationship to the sugar level of the final wine (which is a factor of how the fermentation was carried out, and when it was stopped).

There are those who will decry this proposed scale as yet another attempt to dumb down wine so that American consumers don't have to think much before they buy. But I believe that to be a short-sighted and ultimately elitist reaction to the issue. There are several precedents of such systems working quite well in the world, perhaps most notably the puttonyos classification of the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji Aszu which clearly represents the level of residual sugar in the final wine with a simple number from 3 to 6. An example of a perhaps slightly less successful system (because people don't fully understand it) might be the SMV system used for classifying sake.

It's pretty tough to imagine a classification system for Riesling developed in America taking hold throughout the world, considering that most of the Riesling produced in America isn't that great, and the annual production of the United States is but a tiny drop compared to the volume produced elsewhere in the world. But Riesling is one of the fastest growing varieties of wine consumed in America, so perhaps there will be some momentum around the idea.

In any case, I applaud the idea. It's about helping people make buying choices that are more likely to result in them enjoying a nice bottle of wine and going back for more -- something that everyone in the wine world wants to see.

Read the full story.

Comments (17)

Alfonso wrote:
07.31.08 at 5:33 AM

I just spent the last day tasting wines from Austria. That might help them, as it seems much of what they make is on the drier side.

Nick wrote:
07.31.08 at 6:45 AM

It's pretty easy to tell the sugar level if you just look at the alcohol. The lower it is, the more sugar level there will be. If it's 12 or 13, it's probably pretty dry, if it's 10, it'll be off-dry, and around 8 it's pretty darn sweet. Of course, this is all off if it's berenauslese or trockenberenauslese, because the botrytis can make the alcohol level easily around 15-17%, but you know those ones are going to be sweet anyway. I agree it's not that obvious to the average consumer. Especially on restaurant wine lists, which don't even have alcohol levels.

Gordon wrote:
07.31.08 at 8:50 AM

I think this is a good idea.

From the article:
"The foundation has proposed descriptors it hopes to see on every bottle: dry, off-dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet, perhaps to be accompanied by a graphic."

the graphic part scares me a bit (could look really bad if they do it wrong), but the simple descriptors on the label make perfect sense.

Rajiv wrote:
07.31.08 at 10:21 AM

Very good points.

I agree that people shouldn't have to go to wine school just to pick out a wine they will enjoy. On the other hand, it kills me when the dime-a-dozen "wine experts" come on TV and say things like "wine is actually really simple" or "to get good deals, all you have to do is stay away from major regions - less demand = better wine for less!" or when people give "simplified" ways to taste wine, without explaining why you do this and why you do that.

The best introduction to wine I ever encountered was John Cleese's "Wine for the Confused." In the movie, he doesn't try to teach anything about wine, but rather talks with lots of people in the business, and comes up with a good plan to start learning about wine.

I feel like pop culture is flooded with "experts" saying that wine is simple and all the established rituals and conventions are nonsense. The result is I've encountered people who believed that there was literally no correlation between price and quality, that quality is entirely subjective, and even that more expensive wines taste worse!

07.31.08 at 2:06 PM

Though I think this rating system, based on residual sugar, is a good start in terms of informing consumers about the style of wines presented before them, I do see a big glaring problem.

ACID! How a wine is percieved, in terms of sweetness, is not merely a function of residual sugar but of sweetnesses' counter wieght, acidity.

If the IRF bases its designations are residual sugar it isn't really providing anything useful to consumers, especially in the dry and off-dry categories. The bottom line is that mere numbers cannot convey how a wine is balanced. By spoonfeeding consumers are we not possibly creating more confusion in the long run? I have had many rieslings that, based on RS, would be considered off dry but in reality drink bone dry. Will we need to devise another idiot proof system to explain the obvious shortcomming of the one proposed by the IRF? When does it stop?

Morton Leslie wrote:
07.31.08 at 2:31 PM

Jerry is absolutely on point. Knowing one number isn't enough. Add alcohol in the mix as well. I had a dry tasting 9.5% Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel last night. It would have tasted sweet if higher in alcohol and lower in acid. I would prefer to see dry, off-dry, semisweet (trocken halbtrocken lieblich) than a number. Problem with that, people still buy "dry" but prefer "sweet." The solution is to buy wine from someone can tell you what it tastes like.

Rajiv wrote:
07.31.08 at 2:38 PM

Jerry,

I agree. When I first started drinking, I was really bothered by sweetness in both reds and whites. I perceived many of Parker's "fruit bombs" as cloyingly sweet. Glycerine and alcohol contribute to sweetness, while bitterness, acid, and tannins serve to balance/inhibit the perception of sweetness.

The system will not be a substitute for knowledgeable staff who have tasted the wines they are selling. That said, knowing the RS can give a lot of information. 15 g/L is sweet no matter how much acid is there (though it will be more palatable with more acid).

A wine metric that doesn't tell the whole story- What else is new? :)

Rajiv wrote:
07.31.08 at 2:42 PM

Jerry,

I agree. When I first started drinking, I was really bothered by sweetness in both reds and whites. I perceived many of Parker's "fruit bombs" as cloyingly sweet. Glycerine and alcohol contribute to sweetness, while bitterness, acid, and tannins serve to balance/inhibit the perception of sweetness.

The system will not be a substitute for knowledgeable staff who have tasted the wines they are selling. That said, knowing the RS can give a lot of information. 15 g/L is sweet no matter how much acid is there (though it will be more palatable with more acid).

A wine metric that doesn't tell the whole story- What else is new? :)

Rajiv wrote:
07.31.08 at 2:45 PM

Jerry,

I agree. When I first started drinking, I was really bothered by sweetness in both reds and whites. I perceived many of Parker's "fruit bombs" as cloyingly sweet. Glycerine and alcohol contribute to sweetness, while bitterness, acid, and tannins serve to balance/inhibit the perception of sweetness.

The system will not be a substitute for knowledgeable staff who have tasted the wines they are selling. That said, knowing the RS can give a lot of information. 15 g/L is sweet no matter how much acid is there (though it will be more palatable with more acid).

A wine metric that doesn't tell the whole story- What else is new? :)

Petri wrote:
08.01.08 at 12:03 AM

The "puttonyos" indicates the number of "puttonyos" a.k.a baskets of grapes (25kg) used to create one barrel (Gönc, which is 136 liters) of Tokaji wine. Therefore it does give a good indication of the sugar level of the wine but still the number is given before the wine is created. This means that if the creation process wouldn't be so heavily regulated as it is the number on the label wouldn't necessarily tell anything about the sweetness of the wine.

As a side note, similar dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet for white and light, medium-bodied, full-bodied for red rating system is very common in the wine shops in the Scandinavia where the selling of alcohol drinks is monopolized and the companies selling the wines have a large pool of tasters who describe the nose and palate of the wine as well give recommendations for the type of food the wine goes well.

Jon wrote:
08.01.08 at 10:48 AM

I attended the (great) Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle this week and was a bit surprised how proprietary/proud the group was about this dryness scale.

Nick Richars wrote:
08.03.08 at 10:59 PM

Reading this entry reminded me of something I read several month ago in an old Terry Theise catalog, so I jumped on the Skurnik website and tracked it down. Mr. Theise proposes a numerical system ranging from negative two to positive two for conveying what he calls the "Sense of Sweetness". Negative two is for truly austere wines and positive four denotes desert wines. If you would like to read the bit that he has written, and see how he uses it, I have provided the link below.

Prost

http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/documents/TTGermanCatalog2001_000.pdf

Nick Richars wrote:
08.03.08 at 11:03 PM

The Sense of Sweetness info can be found on page 8 of the catalog or page 20 of the pdf

08.08.08 at 3:21 PM

Well, now that the proposal exist I think the question is what else needs to happens to travel from a proposal to the actions like the Puttonyos scale?
I guess that all the actors involved need to participate closely.

08.08.08 at 3:22 PM

Well, the proposal now exist.
I think the question is what else needs to happens to travel from a proposal to the actions like the Puttonyos scale?
I guess that all the actors involved need to participate.

08.08.08 at 3:23 PM

Well, the proposal now exist.
I think the question is what else needs to happens to travel from a proposal to the actions like the Puttonyos scale?
I guess that all the actors involved need to participate.

08.08.08 at 3:28 PM

Well, now that the proposal exist I think the question is what else needs to happens to travel from a proposal to the actions like the Puttonyos scale?
I guess that all the actors involved need to participate closely.

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