Cracking the Riesling conundrum

05 September, 2008

Q Riesling is one of my fastest-growing varietals, but I find

it's such a variable grape

that you can never be sure whether it's going to be sweetish in style or bone dry. Is there a way to be sure, other than simply sticking with tried and tested wines?

A You're not alone in being exasperated with Riesling, which has long been one of the trade's favourite variet als but tends to confuse many consumers. There is a lingering perception among many drinkers that Riesling is a sweet, Germanic wine - and of course it can be, though many people are now seeking out the drier styles from various corners of the globe.

An idea has been suggested to create a five-point flavour scale for Riesling, so that trade customers and consumers can tell more easily what kind of wine they're getting. The International Riesling Foundation, a New York-based grouping of 30international Riesling producers, is looking at introducing a voluntary system which would take into account residual sugar, acid and pH.

While we wait for that project to take shape (though there's nothing to stop you starting your own version of it in your shop), you can always go back to using alcoholic content as a rough way of gauging the sweetness of Riesling. The higher the alcohol, the less sugar is likely to remain in the bottle, while wines with an alcohol content of 10% or thereabouts are likely to be sweeter.

Q I read in OLN about a shop fined for removing "best before" labels from drinks. What is the legal position about sell-by, use-by and best-before dates?

A There is a subtle difference between the three which retailers and consumers alike sometimes find confusing.

Sell-by dates are purely advisory and tend not to apply to alcoholic drinks. They help retailers to keep an eye on stock rotation but they don't have any legal force. These labels are effectively the same thing as "display until" notices.

Use-by dates are a different kettle of fish. They tend to apply to products which are perishable and have a short life, and which could potentially be harmful if eaten as they have started to go off. It's vital that store staff keep an eye on such products as it is an offence to offer food or drink for sale beyond its use-by date.

As for best-before dates, they are a legal requirement but, importantly, it is not illegal to sell a product beyond the date on the label.

Most canned beers, for example, keep perfectly well for a year or more and exceeding the best-before date by a few months is almost certainly OK. If you had stock from 1996 that you were attempting to sell, that might be a different matter as the beer may not be of a quality expected by your customers.

In the case you mention, the retailer was fined 4,125 after best-before labels were removed from bottles of lager, alcopops and flavoured water, in breach of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996.

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