How To Tell If Riesling is Dry or Sweet

Riesling is one of the most misunderstood and arguably under-appreciated varietals in the modern wine world. And I’m really talking about the perceptions of your general everyday wine buyer. Not the wine geeks.

I heard a quote recently about Riesling that I thought really summed it up right. It went something along the lines of “everybody may not like all Rieslings, but there’s a Riesling for everybody.”

The challenge with Riesling is that many of the regions that produce the varietal in its finest forms, Germany and France’s Alsace in particular, confuse the heck out of wine buyers with complicated classification systems and either too much or too little digestible information on the label.

Furthering complicating matters is that Riesling can run the gamut from super sweet to bone dry and everywhere in between. When you find a selection of German Riesling, all you see are labels that say Dr. so and so, and words like “spätlese,” “auslese” and “kabinett.” So what’s inside? Why would I buy this wine? What can I expect?

The fact is that when I say there is a Riesling for everybody, there really is. If you like white wine then regardless of the body, character, style, or sweetness of the wines you like, there’s likely a Riesling for you. You just need to find it.

And you can either start hunting through the bins for a catchy label, or some notes from a wine critic that may cryptically tell you what’s inside the bottle. Or you can use the easiest trick in the book, which I wish I had known many years ago.

Look at the alcohol percentage.

It’s as easy as that. The alcohol percentage for Rieslings will be all over the place, from 5-6% to 14-15%. The lower the number the sweeter the wine is; and conversely for higher percentage wines. A good breaking point is 11%.

If the wine is less than 11% it is likely more on the sweet side, the degree of which you can gauge by how far the alcohol percentage is from 11. Likewise, wines that are 11% – 14% are going to be on the dry side.

I’m not here to tell you what wines are best. That’s up to you to decide, but I’ve shared with you an easy system, and one that I guarantee you will remember for determining one of the key characteristics about the wine inside. From there, you need to experiment with different regions, different producers and different styles to see what suits your tastes the best.

Bonus tip for German Riesling buyers:sometimes, but not always, German Riesling will use a descriptor to indicate that the wine is dry. The words to look for are “halbtrocken” which means almost dry and “trocken” which means bone dry. If you see a bottle with either of these two descriptors, take a look at the alcohol percentage. You already know what it’s going to be.

That’s all there is to it. Zum wohl!