Let’s Talk Riesling, Part II: Eric Larkee on Classifications & Taste Profiles

The International Riesling Foundation’s Riesling Taste Profile

A talk about acid-to-sugar ratios may sound more like a science class and less like a lesson at the bar at MGFD. The first part of my Riesling talk with Wine Director Eric Larkee was exactly that, and it focused mostly on the science.

Towards the end of my lesson though, Eric opened up about a whole set of classification laws and taste profiles. Based on science, these systems also offer consumers clues about what to expect from a bottle of Riesling.

Classification Systems from Germany and the Wachau region in Austria

The first indicator regarding a Riesling’s sweetness or dryness level is actually pretty simple. If you’re looking for dry Riesling, just look out for the German word “Trocken” (dry), or the English word “dry” on the label.

In terms of the other German classification laws, well, the system works based on initial grape sugar levels, when the grape is actually picked. They are not based on the final residual sugar levels.

So, that’s where the German system can get tricky. The initial grape sugar levels are later affected by the acid, pH, alcohol and ageing, as was explained in part I of the talk on Riesling.

Eric suggested that I think about the German system as a measure of the potential for sweetness, not the actual sweetness. Among the classifications, Eric mentioned Kabinett (from ripe grapes) and Spätlese (from the late harvest).

Eric also showed me a bottle of Riesling from Wachau, Austria’s greatest wine region. In Wachau, there’s a regional wine association (Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus) that’s developed its own system of classifying wines based on natural alcohol and sugar content.

In terms of alcohol levels, Smaragd must have at least 12.5% alcohol by volume, while Federspiel must have between 11.5% and 12.5% alcohol by volume. Steinfeder is coming in below 11.5%. Remember that high alcohol levels might indicate a drier Riesling, since an amount of the sugar has been converted to alcohol.

Charts & Graphs Aim to Avoid All the Confusion

Not everyone is lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Eric Larkee and talk about Riesling for an hour. So, in response to all the confusion among consumers, the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) developed a chart as a guide for the potential dryness or sweetness of the wine.

The chart lists the categories, Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet, based off of the sugar-to-acid ratios and pH levels.

Towards the end of our conversation, Eric pointed out that the left to right line developed by the IRF might imply that sweeter is better. Most left to right charts, or scales, usually show 0 to 100, from worse to better.

Eric suggested that a three-dimensional cube, with color gradations, and a projected point in the middle would probably be a clearer way for consumers to gauge their Riesling. He would also prefer an animated feature, including values that automatically shift as the Riesling ages and changes its balance. And yes, he is very serious about it.

Eric’s animated, 3-D cube idea summarizes quite well why Riesling is so often misunderstood. It’s difficult to simplify the balance and the versatility of the wine. You can’t really say, “Riesling is sweet” or, for that matter, “Riesling is dry”. There are many other factors at play here, and explaining them to a curious student, or an eager consumer, can really be challenging.

I left MGFD thinking about how much I learned in such a short time. I started with a simple introduction, and a lot of misunderstanding. After just one hour with Eric, I came to understand why Riesling is so celebrated. With its versatility, there truly is a Riesling out there for everyone and every occasion.

I’m just lucky that Eric Larkee sat down and explained it all to me, officially turning me into a high acid, Riesling enthusiast.

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