Riesling, pronounced ‘reece-ling’, is an aromatic white wine grape of German descent dating back to 1435. Despite some misconception, it is not solely a sweet wine. In fact, Riesling can produce a variety of styles, from dry to sweet to sparkling and more, each pairing perfectly with diverse foods for the ultimate balance.
Riesling’s Origin and Lineage
Riesling goes by many synonyms. The name possibly derives from the word reissen (old German rîzan), which originates from the Rheingau on the banks of the Rhein in Germany, as noted in a document dated 3 March 1435. The modern spelling of Riesling appeared in a Latin edition of Hieronymus Bock’s (1552).
Riesling is a crossing offspring between Traminer and Gouais Blanc, an ancient variety of Western Europe. Gouais Blanc has this same relationship with at least eighty other grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Noir and Furmint. Consequently, all of these varieties are half-siblings, grandparents or grandchildren of Riesling.
Even with its many synonyms, Riesling has no genetic relationship with Riesling Italico or Welschriesling. Yet, it’s been used as a breeding partner in many crosses such as Ehrenfelser, Geisenheim 318-57, Manzoni Bianco, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Rieslaner, Rotberger and Scheurebe.
Quality Levels and Sweetness of German Riesling
Germany is the undisputed home of Riesling with 24,409 cultivated hectares (2019), equal to 40% of global Riesling production. Within the German wine industry stands a quality pyramid for all wines. At the bottom of the pyramid is Deutscher Wein, then Landwein. In contrast, sweet Rieslings hold the top spot in this hierarchy.
The top tiers include Qualität and Prädikat quality levels, which account for over 90% of German wine production. These wines have a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and the grapes must come from a specific growing area and pass a sensory evaluation.
There are six levels within the Prädikat classification, each based on the minimum must weight (Öchsle or ripeness level) at harvest. The word Trocken describes a dry wine, while Halbtrocken indicates an off-dry wine with up to 15g/L of residual sugar.
The Prädikats in ascending order:
- Kabinett: Light, dry to off-dry wines with low alcohol content.
- Spätlese ‘late harvest’: Made from riper grapes that produce a more flavorful and intense wine. Not necessarily sweet.
- Auslese ‘select harvest’: A noble wine with intense aroma and flavor. Not always sweet.
- Beerenauslese (BA) ’berry select harvest’: Wine made from individually-selected, overripe berries sometimes infected by Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). They are rarities, harvested only when exceptional weather conditions enable the grapes to ripen to this extent. Noted for their longevity and can cellar for decades. They’re remarkably rich and sweet dessert wines.
- Eiswein/Icewine: Made from grapes as ripe as BA but harvested in exact weather conditions. The grapes go through a press while frozen to produce a juice with a high concentration. They are truly unique wines with a sweetness that balances with high acidity. German Eiswein is becoming less common due to climate change. Canada is now the top producer of this style, along with Austria and the United States.
- Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) ‘dry berry select harvest’: The top of the Prädikat quality pyramid. These are rare wines made from shrunken, shrivelled, noble rot-affected berries. They are only made when conditions allow for it. TBA wines are rich, sweet, luscious honey-like wines that can age for decades.
Pairing Riesling With Food
Riesling is a noble variety that gets praise and adoration from wine professionals for its versatility in pairing with food.
A lighter style Riesling such as Kabinett pairs well with ceviche or raw fish dishes.
Asian dishes, mild curries and roasted meats such as chicken, duck or ham pairs with a Spätlese.
A sweet Auslese will go with blue cheese, soft or triple cream, as well as fruit-based desserts.
Very spicy dishes pair well with sweet Rieslings. Generally, it’s best to match the heat of the spice to the sweetness of the wine.
Growing Regions and Taste Profiles
The Riesling vine is winter-hardy due to its sturdy wood but needs the right site to ripen fully. Due to this, it’s not viable in many regions and hasn’t experienced the same commercial success as Chardonnay, which is easier to grow. Riesling’s ability to express terroir while remaining true to its inherent character is remarkable.
Riesling Across Europe
Riesling has an innate ability to show a diverse range of flavor profiles depending on where it grows. Its spectrum of characteristics ranges from floral or fruity (citrus, stone fruit, tropical fruits) to honeyed or even spicy. Riesling is perhaps most apparent in a blind tasting for its notes of mineral or petrol.
Over 60 clones of Riesling grow throughout Germany. The most distinguished Rieslings come from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, where it ripens on the slatey soils of the most precarious, exposed sites. These wines tend to be lower in alcohol (7%), with razor-sharp acidity, yet are full of concentration and character. Riesling from the Nahe is nervier with a grapefruit quality. Rheingau shows a lightly honeyed character. In the Rheinhessen, Riesling can vary significantly from big, luscious and ripe to tense and vibrant. Pfalz Riesling can have a full body with notes of honey, whilst in Württemberg, they are light and refreshing.
In France, Riesling only grows in Alsace, where approximately 4,000 hectares grow. Alsace has a reputation for a wide diversity of soils, even within a single vineyard. This makes it difficult to generalize which soils produce the best Riesling.
An Alsatian Riesling tends to be full-bodied, dry and have a higher alcohol than in its German counterparts. In youth, they show floral, citrus and stone fruit aromas, gaining steely minerality with age. There are two late-harvest wines, Vendage Tardive may be dry or semi-sweet, and the rarer Sélection de Grains Nobles will always be sweet.
In Austria, the finest Riesling’s come from granite gneiss or mica-schist, on south-facing terraces of the Wachau. Here the climate is cool and the soil free-draining. These soils continue into the western part of Kremstal, where they also produce note-worthy versions. An Austrian Riesling is aromatic, concentrated, bone-dry with high alcohol and can show tropical aromas not usually found in German Rieslings.
Riesling Across the Globe
Until the 1990s, Riesling was the most planted white grape in Australia. It thrives in the cool Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia, where it produces austere, taught, mineral-driven versions punctuated by lime fruit. These wines often have less alcohol than versions from Alsace or Austria. A high-quality Australian Riesling can cellar for up to 20 years.
Washington State has become a regarded region for quality Riesling due to a joint venture between Château Ste Michelle and Ernst Loosen of the Mosel. The wines vary in sweetness levels, with bright tropical fruit notes made in an approachable style. The cool Finger Lakes region of New York State produces some of the finest examples of Riesling in the U.S.; they are sharp and citrusy in style.
Canada produces some of the world’s best Riesling Icewine, particularly in Ontario. The history of Riesling dates back some 50 years when it was one of the first Vitis vinifera vines planted in Canada. Today, Riesling grows in all of Canada’s wine-producing regions and makes every style possible, from sparkling, dry, sweet, skin-contact and steely mineral-driven coastal wines.
In this clip from Sommelier’s Notebook on SOMM TV, Matthew Kaner tastes through four different Rieslings.