Riesling: has its time come?
An article based on my talk at the Nelson Aromatics Symposium, February 2013

I suppose there is something irrational about supporting a football team. In days gone by, teams would be local, and cheering on the town’s finest would bring a sense of social cohesion. These days, premiership sides rarely have many local players, so why should we feel a connection with a particular side, especially if we don’t live in the community?

But at the same time, the loyal support of a team brings an extra element into your life. Every week (during the football season at least) you are placed in a situation where you care deeply about the outcome of a game. You share that emotion with many thousands of others – especially so if you are actually attending the game. But attendance isn’t necessary for those emotions to be felt.

I am a Manchester City supporter, and until very recently this meant that more often than not I had to deal with the pain and despair of defeat, and even, on occasion, relegation. In contrast to this, the occasional victory and promotion was the source of great joy.

City were widely liked by supporters of other clubs because they were plucky losers. The blue half of Manchester, living in the shadow of the reds. A team with loyal, long-suffering fans who didn’t take themselves too seriously. [It has changed a bit, of late, of course, with the injection of large amounts of cash, and the rare feeling of success.]

Riesling is the Manchester City of grape varieties.

Riesling is the plucky loser. The underdog.

Riesling has a moral premium among those in the wine trade. There’s no choice: you have to like it. If you asked an audience of wine trade people to raise their hands if they didn’t like Riesling, they’d stay down. It would take real courage to admit to not liking Riesling within the trade. I have no idea why this is.

For those of us who are Riesling supporters, we see it struggle, lose, and even get relegated, but we’re loyal. And the odd victory – the odd bit of mainstream recognition; when we find it featured on a mid-market restaurant wine list; or when we see a supermarket shopper slip a bottle in their trolley – gives us great joy.

Riesling is pretty terminally uncool in the UK, though. Its image was irreparably damaged by bland (bad?) German wine of the 1970s and early 80s. The irony is that most of these popular German wines weren’t even Riesling: the best-selling Liebfraumilch brands such as Blue Nun and Black Tower were largely sweet, insipid Muller Thurgau. They were very successful. But Riesling is associated with German wine, which is associated with the flute bottle, which is associated with uncool semi-sweet, bland Liebfraumilch.

Sweet is uncool. Most wine drinkers are scared stiff of sweet wine. It’s another legacy thing. Drinking sweet wine is seen as unsophisticated. Serious people like dry wine. Even if they like the taste of sweet wine, they don’t admit it, and summarily reject anything sweet. Riesling isn’t always sweet, but it sometimes is, and the shape of the bottle screams, in a subliminal way, ‘I am sweet’ to the average punter.

Liking wine is a complex matter. The Pepsi challenge shows us this quite clearly. Asked whether they prefer Pepsi or Coca Cola, and the majority of people opt for coke. Get them to taste blind, and they prefer Pepsi. This phenomenon has been studied using brain scanning, and shows that if someone who states a preference for Coke, but who prefers Pepsi blind, will have their enjoyment of Coke enhanced at a subconscious level by being told they are drinking coke. That is, information can change our actual preference. Liking is not just about the taste of a liquid.

This is where we need to segment the market, if we are to make further progress in understanding Riesling, and whether its time has come. A simple segmentation will suffice, to help us make sense of Riesling. On the one hand, we have the average person – the low involvement consumer who buys wine but doesn’t want to learn about it, and will buy from the selection in their local supermarket. They don’t want to spend too much. They just want something tasty. They are afraid of making a mistake. They find the large array of wines stocked by the supermarket to be daunting. They want good value, because wine is one of the most expensive things they put in their supermarket trolley, so special offers are very popular with them. There is the phenomenon of infinite substitution at this level of the market: when one wine is off promotion, they’ll switch to another. These people won’t be reached by wine publications or even newspaper columns because reading about wine is an abstract activity. There are many people like this. The commodity end of the market that they play in is therefore a very big one. Sell wine to these people and you can sell a lot of it. But it is low margin, cheap wine we are talking about here.

On the other hand we have the person with an interest in wine – the high involvement consumer. They are keen to learn; keen to experiment. They are prepared to spend a bit more. They read about wine and will go to tastings. They will use specialist wine shops or mail order. There aren’t that many of these people, but the fine wine dimension they play in is the attractive end of the market to be part of.

OK, this is a slightly simplified picture, but even this crude segmentation will help us think more clearly about the place of Riesling in the market.

I polled my twitter followers who were in the business of selling wine to see how they found it in the marketplace. The answers were interesting. A consistent theme was that the wine trade loves Riesling, but most normal people don’t. Signs of hope were that under-30s didn’t seem to have a negative reaction to it. A common question asked about Riesling was, ‘how sweet is it?’ Some commented that once they got people to try it, they frequently enjoyed it – and that it worked with certain styles of food particularly well. The general feeling was that it was still a difficult sell.

The future is looking brighter though, and I am cautiously optimistic. There are enough people in the trade keen on Riesling, and who are pushing it, that when the negative associations of the past go away, it could really take off. For New Zealand, the best prospects seem to be with slightly off-dry wines, because without a bit of sugar the naturally high acidity levels can be a bit brutal.

Riesling is likely to take off sooner for the involved consumers than the non-involved. The interface of the non-involved consumer with wine is largely at point of sale, on a shop shelf or a wine list. For Riesling to take off with these punters, there’s a real need for attractively packaged, well priced, tasty examples. The development of a big, popular Riesling brand could be important here, but it’s difficult to see a company big enough to do this make the effort with a variety that has been unpopular in this market segment.

Ultimately, though, quality will win out. As Riesling wines get better, and are more imaginatively packaged and sold, they will do better in the market place. It is a grape variety with a point of difference, and has amazing potential in restaurants as a partner for modern-style cooking. It is a flexible interpreter of terroir, able to convey a sense of place but also able to be shaped by the hand of the winemaker as she or he attempts to interpret their vineyard. I buy and drink Riesling, although I’m not a fan of every example of this variety. Its future is bright, but further patience may be needed.

See also:

Visiting Central Otago, New Zealand (series)
Visiting Martinborough, New Zealand (series)



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