Riesling & The Limitations of Selling Wine in a Grocery Store (Part 1)

Can you recommend a good Riesling? I actually cringe a little inside every time someone asks me that question. Not because I don’t like Riesling, but because I do.

Riesling is quite possibly the best white grape on the planet. It’s one of the few grapes capable of producing the full range of styles, from bone dry to medium-sweet, sweet, or luscious (cavity) sweet. It has no competition as a partner for food. But perhaps most endearing of all, good Riesling tells of its place like no other wine.

I have all sorts of Riesling recommendations in my head, but any recommendation I make is limited by what we carry in the store. And this is where I have to remind myself that Wegmans is a grocery store that sells wine, not a wine store. And there’s a difference.

One of the biggest problems with selling Riesling in the United States is that it suffers from an image problem. People associate Riesling with the cheap, insipidly sweet wines that come in a blue bottle (thanks, Blue Nun). Blue bottle fans don’t actually ask for Riesling recommendations, because they are wed to their blue-bottle, and nothing you say will convince them to try something different (even suggesting a different blue bottle is a risk).

With very few exceptions, my rule regarding wine in a blue bottle is simple: Put it back.

Another problem with Riesling in the US (directly related to the first problem) is that the availability of high quality Riesling outside of specialty wine stores is slim pickings. Most of what’s available in mass-market retail outlets (grocery stores and big box wine stores) are high-volume Rieslings that sell — cheap, cheerful, and blue. I get it, it’s business. But it’s frustrating.

Back to that recommendation. Mentally going through my favorite places for high quality Riesling:

Germany

I love German Rieslings, but most of what’s widely available in the US (outside of specialty wine stores) is on the simple & sweet side. My favorite German Rieslings are the Grosses Gewächs (a term used to identify some of the highest quality German Rieslings, and specifically for dry wines). We have zero bottles of GG Riesling in the store.

And most folks are so intimidated by German wine labels, they avoid the the German section altogether. That said, German labels are actually very clear and informative, but if you don’t know what all those words mean, you run away. One of my favorite customers walked up to me one day with a bottle of German Riesling in hand and said, “What in the Sam Hill does all this mess mean, anyway?”

Dr. Loosen’s entry level Riesling has a made-for-America wine label that’s approachable and easy to read. It’s a medium-sweet Riesling, perfect for those who are interested in German Rieslings, but don’t know where to start. A friendly price tag at $10.99, too. Higher quality Loosen wines get more complicated labels (and much higher price tags). Worth the extra $, though.

Alsace

The Alsace region of France makes superb, toe-curling Rieslings. Alsace Riesling is almost always dry, and higher in alcohol than the German style. We have four in the store, all entry level. We have a private label (skip it), Trimbach Riesling, Willm Riesling Reserve, and Hugel Classic Riesling. All of those are a great place to start, and absolutely worth it for the sake of exploring. But fair warning, once you try an entry-level Alsace Riesling, you’ll want more — single vineyard and Grand Cru Alsatian Rieslings are a class of their own. And I don’t have any more to offer you.

Austria

Austria doesn’t grow nearly as much Riesling as it does its superstar grape, Grüner Veltliner (Riesling is only something like 15% of acreage in Austria). But the Riesling that is made, is of excellent quality. Austrian Rieslings are almost always dry and filled with precision and energy. Austria is slightly warmer than Germany, so the wines tend to be fuller bodied, with higher alcohol.

We have exactly one Austrian Riesling in the store, Steininger Riesling Kamptal. A solid wine at a great price ($16.99). But after that? Tumbling tumbleweeds.

Australia

Just, no.

Great Australian Riesling can be a life-altering experience. Riesling thrives in the high altitude vineyards of Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia. Diurnal temperature swings (warm days and cool nights) help the grapes preserve their acidity. Australian Rieslings are steely and dry, with razor-sharp precision, a slightly oily texture, tell-tale lime flavors, and a searing acidity.

Guess how many Australian Rieslings we have on the shelves? None. Well, wait. We have Yellow Tail. Goodie.

United States

Most of the discussion about high quality Riesling production in the United States centers around the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the Pacific Northwest, Washington state in particular. Wegmans is a New York company, so we are well represented by Finger Lakes Rieslings. Dr. Konstantin Frank is an excellent bottle to try.

Riesling is the perfect gateway for folks who are just getting into wine, who, very typically, gravitate toward sweet wine. And I usually steer these folks toward Washington State. Chateau Ste. Michelle has an entry range of very solidly made Rieslings, in a variety of styles (from dry to sweet), and they’re highly affordable (under $10).

Eroica Riesling, also from Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a step-up in quality, and really lovely stuff (incidentally, a collaboration between Dr. Loosen and Chateau Ste. Michelle).

Eroica Riesling Price & Reviews | Drizly

Notice who got left out of this discussion on US Rieslings? California. But that’s a post for next week. Stay tuned.

Overall, the Rieslings available at mass-market retail outlets are just entry point . . .

Salud!

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