Riesling stands as one of the most globally esteemed grape varieties, enjoying widespread favor among wine enthusiasts until the mid-20th century. Germany, heralded as the birthplace of Riesling, ascended to viticultural fame on the strength of this exceptional grape. The intrinsic connection between Riesling and Germany is underscored by the fact that Riesling constitutes the largest portion among grape varieties cultivated in the country, firmly establishing itself as the quintessential German varietal.

However, the mid-20th century witnessed a decline in Riesling’s popularity, attributable to a twofold causation. Firstly, a natural transition occurred, as is customary in the cyclical preferences of wine enthusiasts, leading to the ascendance of new varietals. Over recent decades, the preeminence among white varieties shifted from Riesling to Chardonnay, and subsequently from Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc. The dynamic nature of these preferences suggests the potential for Riesling to resurge as a favored choice in the future. Secondly, a notable factor contributing to Riesling’s wane was the unscrupulous practices of certain German merchants, who exploited the esteemed Riesling name for wines of lesser distinction. These lesser-known and simpler varieties were often labeled with some additional definition (Welschriesling, Laski Rizling, Olasz Rilzling, etc.), causing confusion among consumers who, upon noticing the term “Riesling,” drew unwarranted conclusions.

In the pursuit of an authentic Riesling experience, meticulous attention to grape names becomes paramount for consumers. Authentic Riesling should be precisely labeled as such, with the exact spelling “Riesling.” Occasionally, the legitimate Riesling may bear the designation Rhine (or Rhein, or Rhin, depending on the language used). Any additional terms or alternative spellings signify a deviation from true Riesling.

Presently, Riesling is experiencing a resurgence in its reputation as a high-class wine. In Germany, emerging winemakers bring forth innovative ideas, while Australia and North America actively embrace Riesling, producing intriguing and diverse variants.

Riesling stands out among grape varieties for its unique ability to yield a broad spectrum of wine tastes. The exquisite taste profile of Riesling is profoundly influenced by terroir, showcasing its adaptability to diverse soil and climatic conditions. Notably, Riesling proves itself conducive to extended ageing, producing wines that evolve and mature gracefully over time. Furthermore, its inherent characteristics permit the creation of wines across the sweetness spectrum, from bone-dry to lusciously sweet. Lastly, the versatility of Riesling extends to the realm of sparkling wine production, where it excels, adding yet another facet to its multifaceted vinous personality.

Riesling, revered for its distinct taste profile, is characterized by high acidity and a gentle yet pronounced floral-fruit aroma.

Taste of terroir

Terroir, the unique environmental factors shaping a grape’s growth, imparts varied nuances to different grape varieties. Riesling, in particular, exhibits an exceptional sensitivity to terroir, resulting in a diverse array of flavors contingent upon the grape’s origin. For instance, Riesling cultivated in the cold Mosel region offers robust acidity accompanied by the aroma of green apple. In contrast, Rieslings from the warmer climates of Alsace (France) or Clare Valley (Australia) present a milder acidity with prominent notes of citrus and peaches.

Notably, Riesling thrives in cool climates, and its cultivation in warmer regions compromises its signature high acidity and fruity aroma, rendering it lackluster and unremarkable.

The primary regions renowned for Riesling production include Germany, Austria, France (Alsace), Australia (Clare Valley), the USA (New York and Washington), and Canada (Ontario). To savor an exemplary Riesling, discerning enthusiasts are encouraged to explore offerings from these distinguished wine-producing regions.

Taste of age

Riesling gracefully embraces ageing, a process that bestows unique characteristics to this distinguished varietal. In its youthful state, Riesling presents a pale-gold hue with subtle greenish undertones. However, as time passes, the color metamorphoses into an enchanting amber-yellow, a natural progression observed in white wines, each variety unveiling its distinct palette of tints.

The ageing journey imparts profound transformations to Riesling. As the wine matures, it sheds residual sugar, allowing the inherent acidity to ascend in prominence. The once-vibrant fruity aromas gracefully recede, making way for the emergence of nuanced mineral notes. The taste undergoes a fascinating metamorphosis, evolving into a more intricate and captivating profile. Notably, the development of a distinctive petrol aroma stands as a hallmark characteristic of aged Riesling.

Regions of Alsace and Clare Valley have gained renown for their prowess in crafting robust, dry, and exquisitely aged Rieslings, exemplifying the varietal’s ability to evolve into wines of unparalleled depth and complexity over time.

Find your level of sweetness

Riesling, with its distinctive characteristics, offers a captivating playground for exploring sweetness levels. Its elevated acidity serves as a crucial element for achieving balance in sweet wine production. This acidity is paramount, preventing the dominance of sugar and ensuring the wine doesn’t veer into the cloying realm of syrupy sweetness. Additionally, despite being a grape that thrives in cool climates, Riesling demands an extended sunny autumn for optimal ripening. This extended ripening period provides an opportunity to accumulate sufficient sugar levels, facilitating the creation of naturally sweet wines.

Riesling presents a spectrum of sweetness options, from bone-dry to lusciously sweet and even dessert-worthy. Remarkably, it excels across this entire spectrum, offering a delightful experience for enthusiasts with varying preferences. Whether you lean towards the crispness of a dry Riesling or prefer the indulgence of a sweet or even lusciously liquorish variant, Riesling caters to diverse palates. Notably, only Gewürztraminer shares this flexibility in sweetness.

In Alsace and Clare Valley, Riesling’s prowess shines in crafting exclusively dry, full-bodied expressions. In the United States, both dry and sweet variations grace the wine scene. Germany, renowned for its Riesling mastery, specializes in semi-sweet and sweet renditions. Notably, these German specialties feature a characteristic lower alcohol content, typically ranging between 9-11%, whereas Alsace Rieslings boast a slightly higher alcohol by volume (abv) of 12-13%. Contemporary trends among young German winemakers also witness the emergence of dry Rieslings with elevated alcohol levels.

Understanding the world of sweet Rieslings, particularly those from Germany, involves delving into the art of crafting naturally sweet wines. This intricate process encompasses various methods, each contributing distinct flavors. A detailed exploration of these methods, along with illustrative examples, is available in the article “Wines for the sweet tooth”. Here, a succinct overview is presented.

Naturally Sweet Wine Production Methods:

1. Halt Fermentation Early: Arrest the fermentation process before all sugar is consumed. This method is employed in crafting affordable German semi-sweet and sweet Rieslings.

2. Add Sugar: Enhance dry wine with added sugar. While a straightforward approach, it results in accessible and economical semi-sweet and sweet German Rieslings.

The pinnacle of naturally sweet wines is achieved when grapes possess an exceptionally high sugar content, prompting the fermentation process to cease naturally while residual sugar remains. Three principal methods are employed to attain such grapes, each revolving around the strategic removal of water from the berries. Notably, each method imparts distinctive flavors to the resulting wine, contributing to its unique and complex character. It is essential to highlight that these techniques are applicable exclusively to grape varieties inherently capable of accumulating substantial sugar levels. Riesling stands as a quintessential example of such a variety, possessing the inherent characteristics necessary for these specialized winemaking methods.

Freezing on the Vine: This method, used in crafting Icewine in Canada (Ontario and British Columbia) and Eiswein in Germany, involves freezing grapes on the vine, preserving the wine’s taste while fortifying its character.

Drying on the Vine or Post-Harvest: This approach imparts the essence of raisins and dried fruits into the wine. In the United States, wines crafted through this method are labeled as “Late Harvest,” with variations involving drying grapes post-harvest.

Noble Rot: Among the most esteemed methods, wines produced from botrytized grapes, such as German and Austrian Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, showcase the profound impact of Noble Rot on sweet Rieslings, offering an unparalleled sensorial experience.

How to read labels of German wines

The versatility of Riesling is extensive, and when purchasing a bottle, having a preliminary understanding of its potential contents, particularly in terms of sweetness, is paramount. Navigating German wine labels, especially for Riesling, can be a complex task. Here’s a breakdown of the key terms to focus on beyond the wine’s name and place of production.

German wine classification departs from simplicity, relying on the sugar content in grapes rather than the wine itself, as stipulated by German wine law. It’s crucial to emphasize that this classification pertains exclusively to naturally sweet wines, derived solely from their inherent grape sugars, not supplemented.

These wines epitomize delicacy and gentleness. Light-bodied with heightened acidity, they exude an aroma reminiscent of green apples and citruses. Kabinetts can range from dry to off-dry, with very occasional semi-sweet variants. Dry Kabinetts typically have an alcohol by volume (abv) of 11-12%, while the sweetest ones hover around 8-9% abv.

As the name suggests, Spätlese is crafted from riper grapes than Kabinett, resulting in a fuller-bodied wine with a more pronounced aroma. Notes of peaches and citruses supplant the green apple tones. Spätleses can be dry or sweet, with the latter being sweeter than Kabinett. These wines are suitable for aging, up to a decade.

Featuring the use of the most ripe grapes, often meticulously hand-selected, Auslese wines can be partly botrytized (treated with Noble Rot). While some dry wines may be found in this category, most Auslese wines tend to be sweet, boasting a richer taste than Spätlese. If the wine contains botrytized grapes, it may be labeled as Goldkapsel.

Beerenauslese (BA)
This category represents rare, high-quality wines crafted from botrytized grapes, exhibiting exceptional sweetness and richness.

Trokenbeerauslese (TBA)
Among the most rare, high-quality, and expensive sweet wines, TBA is exclusively made from hand-picked, select botrytized grapes. Production may not occur every year, contingent upon specific weather conditions conducive to grape ripening. The alcohol content is seldom higher than 8%.

Wine created from frozen grapes, capturing a unique sweetness and intensity.

Two additional German terms to familiarize yourself with:
Trochen – dry
Halbtrochen – semi-dry
If neither is present on the label, the wine is inherently sweet.

Sparkling Riesling

Riesling’s elevated acidity and vibrant yet delicate aroma position it as an excellent grape variety for crafting sparkling wines. Primarily produced in Germany and Austria, sparkling Riesling faced a setback during the latter half of the 20th century due to challenges in the German wine industry. However, with the resurgence of German viniculture, noteworthy sparkling Rieslings have once again emerged. A comprehensive guide to deciphering German sparkling wine can be found here. Beyond Europe, Canada (Ontario and British Columbia) and the USA also indulge in the creation of sparkling Rieslings.

In essence, Riesling stands as a grape variety deserving of the attention of wine enthusiasts, offering a diverse array of options to cater to its ardent fans. Select the Riesling style that suits your palate today and relish the experience!

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