Andy Perdue

A little more clarity, honesty please

In this edition of Wine Press Northwest, you’ll find our blind judging of Northwest Rieslings. Of the 108 Rieslings we tasted, more than 30 percent of them carried the Riesling Taste Profile on the back label.

The Riesling Taste Profile, often referred to as “the Riesling scale,” is a graphic that goes on the back label of a bottle of Riesling. It was developed in 2008 by the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) — in fact, the concept and look of it was the brainchild of Dan Berger of Santa Rosa, Calif., whose column has long graced the pages of Wine Press Northwest.

Here's the problem with Riesling: Thanks to the most popular styles made in the 1970s and 1980s, the public perception of the noble white variety is that every bottle is filled with a sweet wine. Frankly, it's a well-earned reputation, thanks to such easy-drinking German Rieslings as Blue Nun and Black Tower that filled shelves across the United States and United Kingdom 40 years ago.

To solve Riesling's perception problem, the Riesling Taste Profile was created, and wineries around the world began to use it. At a glance, the potential buyer can see if a wine is sweet, dry or somewhere in between. The winemaker determines where the wine fits on the scale based on such factors as residual sugar, acidity, fruitiness and the overall perception of sweetness.

The beauty of the Riesling scale is its simplicity and honesty.

Chateau Ste. Michelle — the world's largest producer of Riesling — puts the scale on most of its wines. For its mainstream Columbia Valley Riesling, that means the scale is on more than 12 million bottles of wine per year. It is joined by wineries across the United States and around the globe.

The IRF provides the scale at no cost, so there is no financial reason for every producer to not use it. That more than 30 percent of Northwest Riesling producers are using it is heartening. I'd love to see that double again in the next couple of years.

According to the IRF, the scale is making a difference. Consumers are getting used to looking for it, and that is helping. According to wineries, retailers, restaunrateurs and IRF members, the scale is changing the perception of Riesling from being a sweet wine to one that is versatile. The scale is helping to put Riesling in its proper perspective as the greatest wine on Earth.

In fact, the scale has become so useful, I've started to see it on other wines, including rosés, Sauvignon Blancs and even Merlots. While the IRF is not thrilled with its scale showing up on non-Rieslings, this does give rise to an idea: What if more wines began to use similar graphics on the back label?

What if a Chardonnay bottle could quickly tell me if it’s rich or crisp? What if I could see with a glance if a rosé was dry or sweet?

For red wines, wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to quickly see if a wine's flavors were driven by oak or fruit, if the structure was plush or taut?

An idea like this would bring a refreshing bit of honesty and transparency to a part of wine packaging that is rife with misdirection. It is filled with phrases such as “reserve,” “old vine” and “barrel select” — words with little meaning and no definition. The back labels of wines are often filled with descriptions. Sometimes, they are the honest words of a winemaker trying to convey what is in the bottle; or perhaps they’re the flowery prose of the marketing department.

The weight of a bottle influences our buying decisions: The heavier the bottle, the greater the perceived quality — and the higher the price of that wine.

I prefer clarity.

I like to know where the grapes came from (smaller American Viticultural Areas and vineyard designations are great). If it's a white or dessert wine, I like to know the residual sugar (a number that is rarely included anymore). I’d love to see the alcohol percentage put in the same place on every bottle — and not in 1-point type.

Is it a red blend (seemingly the most popular category in Washington right now)? More than half the wines out there give little clue about what kinds of grapes are actually in the bottle.

These are all a lot to ask, and some of it isn't practical. My favorite grocery store has a terrific selection of more than 1,000 different wines. While I see it as a fun opportunity to explore and discover, I suspect many consumers are overwhelmed, even terrified. Fortunately, this particular store has a friendly wine steward to guide those who wander about. This, I find, is a rarity unless I walk into a wine shop.

I think the Washington wine industry can lead the way in creating a set of scales similar to what the IRF came up with. There might be three or four to handle different styles of wine: oaky to fruity, dry to sweet, crisp to rich. A low-key public-relations campaign in groceries, wine shops, tasting rooms and social media could spread the word and get consumers used to turning the bottle around to glance at the back label and quickly learn a little more about what they're holding and if they want to buy it.

I'd even bet we could get Dan Berger to help with it.

This story was originally published May 24, 2016 12:00 PM.

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