Loved by wine critics but a stranger to broad commercial appeal, Riesling is a light-skinned, aromatic grape of German origin which is also responsible for some of Germany's greatest, and longest-lived, wines. Riesling is made in a range of styles but generally produces crystalline, aromatic white wines with notes of citrus, wax and lanolin, with a light to medium body and plenty of fresh acidity.
It seems much of Riesling's reputation in the latter half of the Twentieth Century was tarnished by the sea of chaptalized, low-quality wine exported from Germany in the 1970s and 80s. In truth, very little of that infamous wine was Riesling at all, but instead higher-yielding grapes such as Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner), but the reputation has nonetheless stuck.
Riesling is regarded by many critics as being one of the world's finest white grapes (and wines). "Riesling (pronounced reece-ling), is the greatest white wine grape in the world," said UK wine critic Jancis Robinson MW in a 2020 piece for the Financial Times.
What Riesling tastes like
Riesling has also been stereotyped as just a sweet grape, used only to make sticky wines. But while botrytized Rieslings are among the finest sweet wines in the world, the majority of global Riesling wines are either dry or off-dry.
Young dry Rieslings tend to be very light in color, sometimes pushing into light gold hints, depending on the region and winemaking. Sweeter styles tend to be considerably more yellow/golden in hue.
Most distinctive is Riesling's aroma, due mainly to its high levels of monoterpenes (as is the case with Muscat, for instance). Riesling on the nose can run the gamut from citrus (lemon and/or limes are frequently noted), candle wax, white blossom and sheep's wool/lanolin to honeyed, sometimes musky and spicy notes in botrytised or partially botrytised fruit.
Aged Rieslings – and younger Rieslings grown in warmer climates – can also show a petrol-like aroma, often described as kerosene. This is due to a compound known as TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene) that develops over time in aged Rieslings and is increasingly noted in younger, warm-climate, often New World wines.
On the palate, Riesling has a medium to light body with relatively low alcohol levels and high acidity. But it is in balancing these attributes that Riesling can become less straightforward.
In some cases, for instance, Rieslings are made dry, with their searing acidity providing a long and sometimes lightly textured, mouthwatering persistence on the palate. For other producers (or other labels from the same winery), the high acidity is balanced by a degree of residual sugar (either through halting the fermentation or the use of unfermented grape must, or juice – a "süssreserve", or "sweet reserve").
Either technique can reduce an already relatively low potential alcohol level to single digits – often a good sign a Riesling has some sweetness.
Riesling's trademark acidity also means it is a prime candidate for extended time on the vine and the production of high-sugar, often botrytised, late-harvest sweet wines. These come in all manner of sweetness levels, with the German Auslese and Sp?tlese monikers generally indicating such wines (with Sp?tlese the sweeter of the two).
At its most extreme, eiswein or icewine can be produced in exceptional years by leaving the grapes out until winter and harvesting the freeze-concentrated berries for wine production. Icewine or "eiswein" on the label denotes such a wine and these are often limited in number, highly-prized and correspondingly pricey.
It should be pointed out, however, that the German label terms such as Kabinett (often denoting a dry wine), Sp?tlese and Auslese refer to the sugar levels in the berries at harvest, not in the final wine (for more information on this, please see our German wine label guide). Such vagaries and variations in style are sometimes given as a reason for Riesling's inability to break through into mainstream consumer appeal.
Furthermore, Alsatian Riesling can combine elements of botrytis, later harvest dates, and complete fermentation to produce golden, aromatic, relatively high-alcohol, dry and textural wines. The Rieslings of the Clare and Eden valleys are generally dry, with vibrant acidity and often notes of kerosene.
Riesling's acidity also means it is well suited to sparkling wine production although this is somewhat rare.
Riesling in Germany
Riesling's spiritual home is unquestionably the regions that trace the middle Rhine and the lower Mosel, two of Europe's great wine rivers. Here we find the key wine regions of Germany, most famously Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz. Riesling vines cover the steep, slate-rich hillsides above these famous rivers, and are used to make crisp, refreshing wines with pronounced acidity.
Riesling in France
On the other side of the Rhine lies Alsace, once German but now part of France. Here, Riesling is the most important wine grape variety in terms of both quantity and (arguably) quality. Alsace Riesling has its individual style, richer and more generous than those made in Germany. This is made possible by the region's sunny, dry mesoclimate and the shelter provided by the Vosges Mountains.
Riesling in Austria
Austria also produces a large quantity of Riesling, most notably from its eastern Wachau and Kremstal regions. This is made mostly in drier styles, although Lake Neusiedl, just southeast of Vienna, creates a sufficiently humid climate for the production of sweet botrytized Riesling.
Riesling in the New World
Happily, Riesling has found several New World niches to which it is very well suited. The high quality Rieslings now made in Australia's Clare and Eden valleys have proved this with particular competence.
Most notably, Clare Valley Riesling has emerged as a style in its own right, with crisp, citrus-scented acidity and aromas of toast and honeysuckle.
Just across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand is also making high-quality Riesling in Canterbury and Otago, while South Africa's Riesling is also showing promise. The famous ice wines of Canada are made mostly from Riesling or Vidal, and have further demonstrated the cold-resistant characteristics of this hard-wooded variety.
Riesling clones and homonyms
There are various clones and sub-varieties of Riesling in existence, and the variety has multiple variations on its name (e.g. Johannisberg Riesling, Rhine Riesling). To complicate matters, there are several white grape varieties that bear the name Riesling, but are entirely unrelated.
A rare, pink-skinned variant of Riesling – Roter Riesling – is grown in Germany and Austria. There is ongoing debate as to whether Roter Riesling is a mutated form of traditional Riesling, or vice-versa.
Weisser Riesling, Johannisberg Riesling, Johannisberger, Rhine Riesling, Riesling Renano.
Food pairings for Riesling wines
- Quiche Lorraine; zwiebelkuchen onion cakes (dry)
- Thai green curry (off-dry)
- Key lime pie (sweet)
Enjoy this video of Ernie Loosen talking about Riesling in the Mosel...