Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Columbia Winery. As Washington’s original premium winery, Columbia Winery proudly carries a long legacy of discovering and celebrating exceptional Washington wine. Our rich history, as well as the distinct terroir of the great Columbia Valley, allows us to craft wines that embody Washington’s unique spirit and curious nature. Columbia winery offers a collection of rich and deliciously enjoyable wines inspired by the diversity of Washington’s best growing regions. Created through visionary winemaking and unrelenting curiosity: Columbia Winery.
Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the white grape varietal Riesling and its wide range of styles, from bone dry to sweet. The wine can present notes that vary from honey to lime, depending on where the vine, which is hardy and grows well in cold regions, was grown.
Riesling is believed to have been discovered in the western part of Germany in the 15th century. The grape’s vines thrive along the Rhine River, about halfway between the Swiss Alps and northern Germany. Of the 13 wine growing regions in Germany, six are in this area, all of which grow Riesling grapes. In this area, examples of Riesling’s diverse nature are apparent. Rieslings from Rheingau, for example, are very grippy with notes of honey, while Pfalz Riesling is juicy and round.
Outside of Germany, the grape is also grown in Austria, Australia, and the U.S. In 1999, Washington state began growing the varietal, and in more recent years, the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York has established itself as a prominent Riesling-producing region.
Or learn about Riesling here
My name is Keith Beavers. And as a kid, Eddie Van Halen was my hero.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to episode 20 of the Wine 101 Podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, I’m the tastings director at VinePair. How are you? I think we’re both good. So you’ve heard of Riesling. Do you know Riesling? Do you love Riesling? Do you want to love Riesling? People are talking about Riesling. What is this grape that’s come into our world and said, “Hi?”
Have you guys ever tried it? I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The thing is, the wines made from this grape are some of the most unique wines out there. The reason why we’re putting this in the first season is because this is a wine that’s been around for a long time.
It originated in Germany, which we’ll get to, but in just the past 10 to 15 years, it has kind of built and built and built to now, in the United States, it’s kind of a big deal. And if you’re thinking, “Really, Keith? I didn’t know Riesling was a big deal.” Well, the reason why it is, and the reason why you’re going to see more of it around, and you’re probably seeing more of it around on wine shelves, is because in the wine industry itself the popularity of Riesling has come to a fever pitch. There is this obsession with this wine, and it started in the sommelier community, the wine importing community, and the wine-buying community, in some respects. There’s actually a wine bar in New York that had something called the “Summer of Riesling” where it was just Riesling all summer long on the wine list. And it briefly became a national trend. But when it was a national trend, it was “Summer of Riesling” all over the place. That might be how you actually learn about Riesling.
And there’s a lot to talk surrounding Riesling in terms of where it comes from in Germany. There is a lot to learn about what’s going on in Germany with Riesling and how they present Riesling to people. Then there’s the grape, itself, and its very unique characteristics and inherent material that makes this very unique wine. And then on top of that, there’s this wide spectrum of Riesling styles, from bone dry to crazy sweet. It’s a lot.
I’m going to touch on some of the German stuff. We’re going to talk a little bit about that. Not a lot because, again, it would take a whole episode. But I want you guys to understand why this wine is the way it is because, historically, in the United States we’ve come up with oaky white wine. Even though we love Sauvignon Blanc — which is sometimes oaked — and Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and oaked white wine is how we came up in wine. And Riesling is just the polar opposite of that. Let’s just get into this.
Riesling — pronounced like Reese’s peanut butter cup — comes from Germany. Interestingly enough, it has a parent-offspring relationship with the Casanova of grapes we talked about before: Gouais Blanc. But the real documentation of this grape is a little bit crazy, but it really pops up around the 15th century in the western part of Germany. You have the Rhine River, which is a very important river in Europe, it’s one of the big trade rivers. It starts in the Swiss Alps and then works its way north through Germany to the North Sea. And about halfway from the Swiss Alps to northern Germany, the Rhine River takes a hard turn west. And in this area, the Rhine River with about five other rivers with names like, Neckar, Nahe, Mosel, Main, this is the area where Riesling has thrived for a long time. This is Riesling’s home. And this is what it looks like. You have rivers that are cutting through these mountainous hills, and the hills are very steep from the river on each bank.
And those hills are filled with very poor soil, like slate and granite. Nothing grows on these hills, except for the Riesling vine. There are 13 wine growing regions in Germany but there are six that are centered in this specific area that grow Riesling that we’re going to see on the American market, mostly. You have Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, and Gutenberg. And each of these regions are pretty much terroir-driven. They all grow and make Riesling but in styles that are specific to their area. Rheingau makes grippy Rieslings that kind of smell like honey. Pfalz makes fat, round, juicy Rieslings. Mosel, which is the coolest of the regions, makes the most focused, age-worthy Rieslings. And within these terroir-driven styles, depending on when the grapes are picked, will define how sweet or how dry the Riesling will be. And if that sounds confusing, it actually is pretty confusing. And in addition to that, the Germans, in 1930, started developing their classification system, their wine laws. And then it was completely overhauled in 1971. And then through the ’80s, the ’90s and the early 2000s, it changed as well. I’m not going to get into German wine law, just can’t do it, but I want to explain Riesling to you and how unique and crazy this stuff is. And in doing that, you’ll get a sense of why there’s a wide spectrum of styles in Germany and outside of Germany. Because, even though I gave you a general idea of how some of the Rieslings are characterized in different regions, even with those generalities, there’s differences within those regions.
What I think you should know about the Riesling is, first of all, it will never see oak. Riesling and oak do not, nor will ever, get along. Another thing to know about Riesling is they’re often low in alcohol. The highest you can get is probably about 13 percent alcohol, which you’re not going to see often. Mainly you’re going to see between 8 and 10 percent alcohol. This is where the unique thing is, the grape Riesling is very high in tartaric acid.
You have the two main acids in wine: Tartaric acid and malic acid. When I talk about acidity, that’s what we’re talking about. Malic acid is often decomposed through the malolactic conversion, which we talked about in the Chardonnay episode. Tartaric acid is the acid that sticks around for a long time, and there is a lot of it in the Riesling grape. Also, the wines made from Riesling often have a very high residual sugar, which we talked about in the winemaking episode. But with the high tartaric acid, it often can hold up to the residual sugar. What you have here is a wine that is nervy and bracing with acidity, and sweet at the same time. It’s crazy. What happens is you have high sugar and high acid. Now this grape, depending on when it’s picked, can change. If you have lower acid and more sugar, it’s going to be more lush. If you have higher acid and less sugar, it’s going to be bone dry, and depending on where it’s grown, how it’s made, and when the grape is picked, will define that.
And that’s one of the reasons why German wine law was a little bit confusing. There’s a lot of levels of that. The other thing you should know on top of all that, is that it is one of the most aromatic wines out there. I know Sauvignon Blanc has a lot of aromas, my God, you cannot deny that. But there is a very distinct Riesling aroma profile. It can be described as sharp, steely, racy. Sometimes you put your nose in a Riesling and you’re literally smelling a wet rock. It’s crazy. And even though it has all that stuff — that steely, racy kind of sharpness to it — it can also have the sweetness in there. But the sweetness won’t be prominent because of that steeliness. Sometimes you smell honey. Sometimes you smell grapefruit. Sometimes you smell spicy cinnamon. It’s all over the place. And then on top of all of that, there is a compound in this grape that is only found in a few other varieties — this is the most famous grape that has it. It’s a long scientific name, but the acronym is TDN: Norisoprenoid hydrocarbon 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,1,2-dihydronaphthalene. You’re like, “Whoa, Keith, why did you just throw all those words in my brain?” Well, TDN is the acronym.
And the reason why I’m saying this is because this is very specific to this wine. As the Rieslings age in the bottle, within two to three years in the bottle, this particular compound becomes apparent on your nose and in your brain. The detection threshold is very minor, but it smells like kerosene, straight up kerosene. And in very low amounts, just above your detection threshold, you’re like, “Oh, this is very wild.” And you have all this floral stuff, some honey stuff, the minerality is happening. And then the slight little kerosene thing comes in, and it’s a very unique part of the complexity of this wine. If it’s in higher concentrations, this becomes a prominent aroma, and it can sometimes take away from the subtleties of this wine. It doesn’t often happen, but it can. Mostly, this is a part of the complexity of a wine, it’s very comfy on the nose. And it doesn’t transmit to the palate. It’s really more of a nose aroma.
Another thing you should know about Riesling, and this is the crazy thing. Riesling can age, as a white wine, as long as a red Bordeaux. Like 20 to 30 years. And this is a wine that never sees oak. Oak helps in the aging process, all the magic of Riesling happens in the bottle. It’s crazy. Another thing to know about Riesling, and this is what’s going to take us out of Germany and to other places in the world but not many, because the vine itself, the woody armor that develops as they grow, which we talked about in the vineyard episode, is very winter-hearty. This is a vine that does very well in extremely cold weather. The area in Germany in which it thrives, there’s just snow everywhere. I don’t know if they love it, but they can definitely handle it. So in Germany and outside of Germany, the best places for Riesling are in cool regions, that’s why it’s not all over the place. Outside of Germany we have Austria, they don’t do a lot of Riesling but the Rieslings they do are just beautiful. They’re very crisp, very clean, they’re wonderful. Outside of Austria and Germany, there’s France. The only place in France that Riesling is allowed in is Alsace, which is north of Burgundy, and it was once Germany. They have Rieslings there and they have a whole grand cru system there, which I can’t really get into but they range in style from very sweet to very dry. In the New World, there’s actually one area that’s not very cold that thrives with Riesling, and that’s Australia. The Rieslings coming out of Australia are very unique in that they’re a little more tangy, they smell like limes and honey and stuff like that. They’re not as prominent on the market as they once were, but there was a time when Riesling was a big deal in Australia. But it’s when we get to North America, that is where the sort of Riesling renaissance in the New World really took hold, and it really started in 1999 in Washington State.
There is a winemaker from the Mosel of Germany, his name was Dr. Loosen, and he tasted a wine from Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is a prominent winery in Washington State. He actually partnered with them to create a wine called Eroica, which is a Riesling that is very prominent on the American market. And that was the beginning. That was the spark that kind of brought Riesling into the United States. “OK, so we’re doing Riesling now.” And to this day, Riesling is a very important variety in Washington State. Some amazing Rieslings come out of Washington State, and actually it’s there that they started this tri-annual Riesling international conference that happens every three years in Washington State. Sometimes it happens in Mosel in Germany, and sometimes it happens in Australia. But the thing about us, as American wine drinkers, we often associate a variety with a place, and then celebrate it. We had Cabernet Sauvignon as the Napa thing. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, it’s all about Pinot Noir. We started paying attention to the Willamette Valley because of Pinot Noir — “Sideways” helped. But that’s why we love Pinot Noir from Willamette.
And as much as Riesling is amazing in Washington State, Washington State does other wines. Cabernet Sauvignon that are very well celebrated and Shiraz. But it’s New York State that is really making a noise for Riesling. In the Northern part of New York State, bordering Canada, there’s a place called the Finger Lakes, and it’s here in this very hilly, very cold, snowy, wintery place that Riesling is thriving to the point where the quality of Riesling coming out of this area is defining New York State to the point where this is Riesling. So when you think about Willamette: Pinot Noir. Napa: Cabernet Sauvignon. Finger Lakes, N.Y.: Riesling. And it’s creating this American style Riesling out of New York. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a roundness to them. There’s a sharpness. You get that steeliness. But there’s a frothy acidity to them. You should definitely seek them out. We at VinePair every year do a top 50 list of the wines we’ve tasted this year that we love so much, and New York Riesling has made that list. I am a native New Yorker. I was born in upstate New York. I’m just very excited because these wines are being celebrated, and it’s so cool.
What’s really great is New York State has created what’s called the International Riesling Foundation. It’s drinkriesling.com. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps raise awareness of Riesling because of the quality that’s coming out in that state. And one of the major contributions they have for the consumer is they actually created a graphic that’s on the back of all of their wine labels of Riesling. It’s a scale from dry, to medium dry, to medium sweet, to sweet. And depending on where in that spectrum the Riesling that you’re about to buy lies, you can just turn around the label and see a little mark somewhere on that scale. It’s such a simple, great way to understand the kind of Riesling you’re about to buy.
And it’s not just New York that has that kind of climate. Just over the border in Ontario, they make great Riesling as well, but mostly in the ice wines. So they let the grapes freeze and they extract all the syrupy juice for them and make dessert wines. And they’re just really awesome. It’s not easy to find because it’s still a kind of an emerging wine region, sort of like Michigan. All the way in the northern part of Michigan there are some beautiful Rieslings being made. They’re very clean, steely, and mineral-driven Rieslings. They’re not as easy to find, but if you come across them, check them out.
So, that’s Riesling in a nutshell. I wish I could get into the whole German wine law because it’s a little bit mind-boggling, but it’s kind of fun, but it really takes some time. Don’t let that scare you. Definitely go and find Riesling and see if it’s a wine that you like, and what spectrum of sweet or bone dry you like. It’s definitely a journey. You have to taste a lot of them to figure out what you dig. And now you know some places outside of Germany that make fun Rieslings as well.
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Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair podcast, which is hosted by Erica, Adam, and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more everyday. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.