DESPITE RIESLING'S MANY WONDROUS ATTRIBUTES, it is sadly still a greatly misunderstood wine. Many New World wine lovers have the misconception that all Rieslings are sweet, while others simply state that they have an unequivocal aversion to Riesling. There are some explanations for these negative impressions.
Many memories linger from the 1970s and 1980s when U.S. consumers’ experience with German wines was dominated by mediocre, semisweet Liebfraumilch, represented by certain mass-produced and heavily advertised brands. These wines were widely distributed (U.S. volume in the mid-1980s hit 1.5 million cases… nearly unparalleled case totals for that era). The truth is that the wines contained little, if any, Riesling and were composed primarily of high yielding, less distinctive grapes like Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Apart from tarnishing the name of the noblest white grape of them all, the wines conditioned many to expect a very circumscribed experience from German wine and, by extension, Riesling—one of relative simplicity and sweetness, lacking balance and a true sense of place or terroir.
Ironically it can be argued that of all white grape varieties, it is Riesling which most purely expresses the qualities of balance and terroir. A tragic consequence of the great misconception that had grown up around Riesling—essentially, guilt by association—is that many true connoisseurs and lovers and admirers of terroir still are unaware of Riesling’s great potential to express terroir and to age magnificently.
It’s also important to remember that while, yes, there have been wretchedly sweet Rieslings, these wines are generally not wretched because they are sweet, but rather because their sweetness is not balanced by a correspondingly high degree of acidity. Since Riesling naturally possesses an extremely high level of acidity, especially those examples grown in the coolest climates, a skilled winemaker can allow for the most felicitous and harmonic sugar/acid balance.