This flight is one of my favorites as it help students understand one of the most confusing aspects of taste - specifically how to properly assess and understand what the terms 'dry' and 'sweet' mean when it comes to tasting things.
When we taste, our brains are interpreting tactile sensations being received on our palate by receptors, known as taste buds. That's it. Taste is a tactile sensation. Remember this, because one of the most common comments I get from new students is that their wine smells sweet. Smelling is a different sense, and one where we cannot receive information about whether there is sugar present in a wine or other product we are assessing. You are smelling fruity aromas that are often associated with a sweet product (think under-ripe vs ripe strawberries), but until you put the item in your mouth, there is no way to know if it contains any sugar. Both strawberries will smell like strawberries - although the over-ripe example will probably be more intense with strawberry aromas. But when tasting the under-ripe strawberry you will not get much sugar and probably more of a tart feel on the palate. Then taste the over-ripe example and it will be luscious with sweetness as the under-ripe tartness and lack of sugar will have given way to a concentration of sugar (and aromas) in the fruit.
In this flight we will see a similar range of sugar and aromas concentrations in the various examples. This is a huge lesson for new tasters, but one that Level 3 students should hopefully understand at this point.
We taste these wines in a flight to compare and contrast the differences in sweetness level, as well as quality levels in premium verses good quality wines. To break this down and understand the flight it is imperative to know some theory on wine making and the regions, specifically when it comes to cool climate regions where oak is not always the main factor in production or maturation.
Alsace is a fairly warm and dry growing region - especially in the middle of the summer growing season. It sits in the rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, very close to the German border, and tremendous quality wines are produced here. Grapes often have a lot of hang-time in this region as producers want to get great flavor concentration in their wines. This means we have lots of sugar in the grape at harvest, and this sugar is then fermented to relative dryness in the finished wines. Alcohols tends to be slightly higher as a result and this can be a tool when buying wines of this nature as a higher abv (13.5-14%), can indicate a dryer wine. Because of the longer hang-time, the grapes can develop thicker skins and a higher level of phenolics in the finished wine, often misinterpreted as oak. Trimbach and Hugel make great examples of Alsace Riesling, and should be commonly found.
We contrast this with a high quality wine from the Pfalz, a region not too far away from Alsace, just over the Rhine River in Germany. These wines will allow for a more floral and concentrated set of Riesling aromas, and are often slightly 'sweeter', although I use that term lightly as the wines are not sweet. They are well balanced, and display a great tension between the some residual sugar and the acidity in the grape. When a wine has an elevated level of acidity, it can carry some residual sugar (RS) that can balance against this acid to create an elegant drink. Think lemon juice vs lemonade. With raw lemon juice we have a very high level of acidity, but low level of sugar. Add some sugar water and you can create a well-balanced beverage that has just the right amount of sugar to contrast the lemon's acid, making for a refreshing beverage. Add too much sugar and you get lemon candy. The winemaker's goal is to find just the right balance point between the acid and sugar. Pfalz producers are experts in this. You can also find a Riesling from the Rheingau or Nahe, for this slot. Just stick with Kabinett level. Burklin-Wolf and Donnhoff are accessible producers. 12% abv is the goal.
For the off-dry to sweet styles, a Mosel QBA is a great, affordable example to source. These wines will be slightly lower in abv (9.5%), and display a distinct sweetness that can balance against acidity quite well. Beautiful to drink and great with spicy dishes from Asia or anywhere hot peppers or heat are part of the cuisine. The RS will off-set against the heat in the pepper for a great food and wine pairing. Look for Dr L by Loosen, or similar product with a lower abv.
It should be noted that the Mosel QBAs are not typically fully sweet. For this affect you would want to source a Spatlese or Auslese or a true dessert wines to see what much more sweetness does in a wine. A Dr L Riesling has about 9 g/L of RS, while a Port or Sauternes can be 110 to 200 g/L in RS - a huge difference in sweetness levels.
Check out the other posts on Level 3 Wine Tasting Calibration:
ABOUT THE Author
Brian Mitchell runs The New England Wine Academy, and is responsible for the content of this blog. With 30 years of drinks industry experience, Brian has learned a few things, but everyday he is learning more. This blog helps to bring that knowledge to you.