Riesling is a deliciously refreshing aromatic white wine that is native to growing areas along the Rhine River in Germany. It boasts crisp flavors of apples, apricots, peaches, and pears along with high levels of acidity. Riesling is one of only a few wines that has its own unique bottle shape, which is tall, slender glass and easy to spot on the shelf.
- Riesling is an aromatic white grape variety that’s native to Germany. It’s also commonly found associated with Alsace (France), the Clare and Eden Valleys (Australia), and the Finger Lakes (United States).
- Riesling arrives in a range of styles from bone dry to sweet dessert wines to sparkling.
- Riesling is one of just a few white wines that can age for decades.
- Riesling can pair with all food types but its high acidity and natural sugars make it a great match for spicy cuisines.
The History of Riesling
Riesling’s history traces back to the Rhine wine region of Germany, where the first reference to the wine was recorded in 1435 in the storage inventory of the high noble court of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen. From its beginnings, it seems the wine was the preferred elixir of German nobility, who transported bottles with them throughout their conquests and business dealings across Europe.
Due to its popularity with nobility, Riesling was stockpiled by the caseful in cellars throughout the country; collectors realized very early on that Riesling was one of the rare white wines, like Chardonnay, that was incredibly age-worthy. While most white wine is meant to be drunk very soon after bottling, high-quality Riesling can last and improve in the bottle for more than 100 years.
Riesling’s ability to age comes in part from its high levels of acidity. Wines made in a sweeter style — more on those shortly — show even more potential for enduring decades in the cellar. Over the course of aging, Riesling often develops a chemical compound known as TDN. High concentrations of this compound impart an almost petrol-like aroma in the wine. While it might sound off-putting, wine enthusiasts view the petrol aroma as a hallmark of high-quality aged Riesling.
What Does Riesling Taste Like?
In its younger form, Riesling is known for expressive fruity, floral notes. Depending on where the grapes are grown, the fruit character can range from bright citrus to luscious stone fruits and pineapple. Jasmine and citrus blossom are common floral descriptors, while it’s not uncommon to also pick up honey, beeswax, ginger, and — in the case of aged wines — that signature petrol note.
Is All Riesling Sweet?
The assumption that all Rieslings are sweet comes from the various styles produced in Germany, where the grape was made famous. In actuality, most Rieslings produced around the world are dry or off-dry. Even in Germany, many producers now focus on making dryer-style Riesling wines.
How To Read Riesling Labels
European countries have their own sets of rules, or in this case laws, when it comes to grape growing and winemaking. In many cases, these laws help a wine region become famous for a certain style. Evidence of these laws can be found on bottle labels and gives an indication of what to expect from the wine. The trick is learning how to read them correctly.
Generally speaking, German Rieslings are identified by one of two categories. Qualitätswein-level wines come from one of the country’s 13 specific wine-growing regions and range from dry (trocken) and off-dry (halbtrocken) to sweet (süss). Prädikatsweins are of superior quality and are broken down into 6 different sub-categories, which are defined by their ripeness (or must-weights) at the time of picking.
- Kabinett: Made from fully ripened grapes. The lightest style of Pradikatswein; can be dry to medium-sweet.
- Spätlese: Made from ripe grapes picked several days after normal harvest (aka late-harvest); can be dry to medium-sweet.
- Auslese: Made from specially selected bunches of very ripe grapes. Can be dry but often semi-sweet or sweet.
- Beerenauslese: Made from overripe, individually selected grapes often affected by noble rot; only made into a sweet wine.
- Trockenbeerenauslese: Made from fully “botrytized” grapes affected by noble rot, resulting in very sweet (and rare) dessert wines.
- Eiswein: Made from grapes that reach the same level of sugar content as Beerenauslese. However, the grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine and pressed while still in this solid state.
Much like any high-acidity wine that shines on its own as a varietal, Riesling can be made into a bright, effervescent sparkling wine. Sekt is the term commonly used in Germany though, oddly, it’s not limited to wines made with only German Riesling grapes. Bottles labeled as Deutscher Sekt and Deutscher Sekt bA indicate high quality sparkling wines made using the tank method and traditional method.
The World’s Best Regions for Growing Riesling
While Germany boasts the strongest and oldest ties to Riesling, by no means is it the only country where the aromatic white variety thrives.
Following the Rhine River to the south-west and crossing the French border, Riesling has found a prestigious home in the Alsace region. Most Rieslings made here are medium- to full-bodied with very little residual sugar. When conditions permit, late harvest or botrytized sweet wines are also made.
Austria is also known for high-quality Riesling wines in a range of sweetness levels, though most are either dry or very sweet.
Outside of Europe, the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia are renowned for their unique, bone-dry style of Riesling. Noticeable lime, lemon, and grapefruit notes distinguish these Rieslings from those made in other parts of the world.
In North America, Riesling has made a name for itself on both coasts. In Washington State, it’s typically made in a dry style and exhibits ripe stone fruit flavors. In New York State, Riesling has established itself as the flagship variety of the Finger Lakes AVA. Due to its characteristic as being a late-ripening grape, Riesling is well-suited to growing near the deep glacial lakes of the region. The lakes retain heat well into November and in turn, maintain warmer temperatures in the air surrounding vineyards.
How to Pair Riesling With Food
Riesling pairs well with all food types, but it really excels when sipped alongside spicy food. Whether it’s the herbs of a fragrant Thai salad or the rich spices of Indian cuisine, Riesling provides the perfect partner. The wine’s natural high acidity keeps the palate fresh, while bottles with residual sugar help tame particularly potent spice.