Ask Eno: Finding the Sweet Spot

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Dear Eno,

How can I tell if a Riesling is dry or sweet? 



Dear Shaun,

Good question!  

While some new world regions (e.g. the USA) often helpfully suggest on the bottle if it is a dry or sweeter style, many regions like those in Germany or Alsace have harder to decipher terminology. Label clarity to the consumer is actually a very important discussion topic among regional producers in the EU as they try to decide what an ever-changing market wants or needs. This is resulting in many producers adding more information to their labels, so your dilemma might one day be merely a thing of the past!  

In the meantime, some tips on understanding the sweetness level of a bottle of Riesling:

Alcohol % – Typically in quality wines the amount of residual sugar in a wine is directly related to the ABV (alcohol by volume). A wine with more residual sugars, and therefore more sweet tasting, did not ferment until dryness and so will be a few % ABV less than its dryer counterpart. If you see a bottle of Riesling between 8%-10% ABV odds are very high that it is medium-sweet to off-dry.

Location – Some regions are more known for making dry or sweeter Rieslings. This is related to regional climatic differences. Cooler climates grow grapes that are higher in acidity so having some sugar in the wines can be necessary to create balanced wines (think of how sugar on a lemon makes it palatable). The cooler Mosel region of Germany typically makes sweeter styles while those coming from France’s warmer Alsace region are usually dry. Learn all about the world’s regions that grow Riesling from the International Riesling Foundation!

Label Terms – There are some label terms that can shed some light on sweetness levels:

  • Regions like the USA or Australia often use the word “Dry” on the label.  The wine might be borderline off-dry in some cases (like in the Finger Lakes) because Riesling’s natural high acidity can make totally dry versions undrinkable in some regions.  
  • In Germany “Trocken” on the label indicates a dry style.  “Halbtrocken”, “Kabinett”, “Feinherb” indicates off-dry styles.  “Auslese”, “Spatlese” indicate medium-sweet styles. 
  • Late Harvest, aka Vendange Tardive, are very sweet styles.  
  • Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) indicates a very sweet style as well.
  • Icewine or Eisweins are very lusciously sweet dessert styles.  

Sweetness Scales – Thanks to the International Riesling Foundation, more and more producers are able to include an official sweetness scale right on their labels!  Here’s an example of one:



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