The Wine Lover’s Grape of Choice
Riesling is always the next white grape variety that will take the world by storm. It’s got everything. It makes wines that are unmistakably “Riesling”, it shows off terroir brilliantly, and it makes some of the highest quality, long-lived wines in the world. And yet…it never quite becomes fashionable.
There are a few reasons for this, with the main one being people’s long memories. In the 1960s and 1970s too many bad Riesling wines were produced. The sweet, low alcohol and low flavoured bulk-produced wines out of Germany turned many people away despite most of the not actually being Riesling. As oak flavours became the fashion in the 1990s, Riesling fell further behind.
But it wasn’t always this way. At the turn of the 20th century it was the most prized and highly priced grape in Germany.
Riesling vines have a very hard wood casing and are late budding, and so resistant to spring frosts. Both these traits make Riesling great for colder regions. If planted in hot climates it ripens too early and loses its aromas. It likes long and slow ripening periods in cool areas, most notably in Germany’s Mosel Valley.
Riesling’s vigorous growth has been a blessing and a curse. It means it’s widely planted, but also means that grape growers have to make a conscious decision to limit yields and produce better wines.
The grape bunches are tight and compact, making them susceptible to botrytis and noble rot, and Riesling makes some of the world’s best dessert wines as a result.
Riesling is a light skinned, aromatic grape variety, famed for its powerful flavours of floral blossom, steely minerality, and often honeyed aromas. It’s from around the world takes you on a flavour tour of all the citrus fruits you can think of, from lemon in Germany to fresh limes in Australia.
Riesling also contains a compound called TDN, which can add complexity in low levels. High levels arise, often with bottle age, and develop into a kerosene-like aroma.
Riesling is often fermented to dry if there is a significant mineral complexity from the terroir, like in Rheingau, Clare Valley, or Central Otago. Not only does it show off the steely minerality, but also the freshness of the pronounced acidity from citrus fruits, from lemon and lime to gooseberry.
OFF DRY STYLE
Some of Germany’s best Riesling wines keep residual sugar to add an off-dry tang to the final wine. Riesling’s main acid is tartaric acid, and the counterbalance with the sweetness is often very nice indeed. The global trend, however, is away from residual sugar and towards fermenting the wines to dry.
Riesling’s high acidity makes it a brilliant grape for sweet wines, whether using noble rot (for highly sought-after BeerenAuslese, TrockenBeerenAuslese, and Alsace’s Selection De Grains Nobles), late harvest wines of Alsace and the USA, or the famous Eiswein (Ice Wines) of the coldest climbs of continental Germany and Canada.
Riesling’s high acidity also makes it a prime grape variety for sparkling wine. And is made in Germany’s premier traditional method sparkling wines, Sekt.
Riesling combines high acidity and good levels of aromatic extract, meaning the best made wines can develop for decades.
The main variables, often due to climate, are the levels of fermentable sugars at harvest, which allows for a stark range of alcoholic strengths and residual sugar in the final wines.
It’s important to know which style of Riesling you have in the bottle before attempting a food pairing.
Dry styles are great with fatty and creamy foods like Quiche Lorraine.
Off dry styles cope well with chili heat and are great with spicy curries from India or Thailand. They also pair rather well with a god cheese platter.
Sweeter, late harvest styles are great with citrus based desserts like Key Lime Pie.
Sweeter, noble rot styles, can pair with blue cheese, nuts, and jams.
Sparkling styles are great with fried fish and chips.
Riesling has been around Germany since the 15th century and was widely grown across the Mosel and Rhine valleys by the 16th century. In the 18th century the monks and monasteries of the regions made a concerted push to plant more.
Early harvesting gave wines with low flavour and high acidity, and lead German researchers to start intense clonal research. Today, Germany has over 60 Riesling clones. In contrast France has only one.
The big trend currently is to remove Riesling plants from areas that are not suited for the plant. This does not mean Riesling is being shunned for other varieties – in reality the average quality of Riesling is increasing sharply, as vines are left on the sunny hillsides, steep slopes, and near to rivers and lakes for the reflected heat.
The best vintners in Rheingau, Mosel, Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz still all swear by the high quality and cultural significance of German Riesling. The variety available by playing with fermentable sugars against the acidity allows for many hours of tasting and discovery.
GERMANY – MOSEL
The Mosel Valley, along with the valleys of the Saar and Ruhr tributaries, are famed for the steep valley slopes that are home to nearly a quarter of all of Germany’s Riesling. Red and blue slate soils warm easily and help with the ripening in an otherwise cool climate.
The best sites are on the steep slopes, south facing towards the sun and sheltered from the strong winds. Top vineyards are close to the river for the reflected heat, but not too close so as to suffer from the morning mists slowing down ripening and spreading rot.
The best wines are low in alcohol, but high in extract with striking aromas and a delicate but complex texture.
GERMANY – NAHE
Under-appreciated outside of Germany, the region of Nahe is particularly interesting in light of the diversity of geography and microclimates. Nearly a quarter of the vineyards are planted with Riesling. In fact, it was here that one of the first serious pushes to perfection occurred in the early 20th century under the watchful eye of the state Domaine, Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim.
GERMANY – RHEINGAU & MITTELRHEIN
These are the only regions left in Germany that are still dominated by Riesling, with nearly 80% of Rheingau’s vineyards, and 70% of Mittelrhein’s. Complex variations are around, and the top Riesling sites are available all over the slopes overlooking the Rhine and Main rivers.
GERMANY – PFALZ
Pfalz was one of the first regions to aim for quality over quantity with their Riesling and stick to it. Only 20% of vineyards are Riesling. But it has commanded the best spots since the start of the 19th century. Typically fermented to dry with 12% alcohol and an opulent body.
GERMANY – RHEINHESSEN
Although only a small proportion is grown here, the red sandstone along the Rhine produces some of the best Riesling money can buy, with strong flavours of citrus, peach, smoked meats and mostly very ageable.
FRANCE – Alsace
Alsace has moved between being part of Germany and part of France a number of times in the past 500 years. It has been home to great Riesling plantings since the 17th century. It is now the only place in France where the INAO (French Agricultural Committee) allows Riesling to be grown.
Noted as one of Alsace’s Noble Varieties, it hits the peaks in the Grand Cru vineyards dotted up and down the region. Alsace Riesling is noted for being bone dry, higher in alcohol, and with alluring floral and fruit perfume.
Alsace is the driest wine region in France, and so the grapes can often be left on the vine much later, leading to special sweet wines Vendage Tardive (late harvest) and Selection de Grains Nobles (noble rot).
Known here as Rheinriesling to distinguish it from the widely planted, and very different grape, Welschriesling. Riesling can produce some of Austria’s best wines in the finest vineyard spots, such as the terraced slopes of Wachau and Kremstal, producing fine dry, full bodied, and aromatic wines. Quite a bit is grown also in and around the city of Vienna.
ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE
Riesling takes up over 10% of Luxembourg’s vineyard sites. Made more in a dry and full-bodied, Alsace style, the wine makers often have to chaptalize (add extra sugar) to add alcohol and body to the final wine.
Riesling works well in continental climates, so has found a comfortable home in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Northern Italy.
Riesling planted in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania is often subject to temperatures a tad too warm to make really interesting wines.
Although now overtaken by Chardonnay as Australia’s number one white grape variety, some of the world’s most renowned Rieslings are produced in the cooler climate regions of Clare Valley, Eden Valley, and Tasmania. Noted for their minerality and lime zest flavours, these wines are amazingly refreshing, great food pairers, and usually very age worthy.
Riesling was used for many years in the cooler sites of Marlborough and Nelson to produce late-harvest sweet wines and refreshing dry wines. The winemakers of Central Otago, however, twigged that Riesling works best in continental conditions and set about finding the best spots for them. Central Otago now produces some of the best Riesling in the world, let alone New Zealand.
Riesling’s push into California has been hampered by its reputation. In a land where the consumer is king, if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t stay! The lowering quantities planted are mostly used for late harvest sweet wine in Santa Barbara and Monterey.
Washington State is producing some of the USA’s best Riesling, and is so committed they organized and hosted the world’s first Riesling Conference.
It’s also one of the main grapes producing wines of great quality in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
Riesling’s cold-weather-hardiness makes it a fantastic wine for the Niagara Peninsula and produces some of the best ice wines on the market.
There are a few hundred hectares in Argentina and Chile, with cooler regions such as Patagonia (Argentina) and Bio Bio (Chile) making good wines.
If you love Riesling you should also explore….
This is a difficult one to decide. Riesling is so unique it’s very tough to say what is comparable to it. Gewurztraminer is high in aromatics and great with a range of foods.
Also with lovely acidity but with a very different structure and aromatic profile, Chenin Blanc can provide a very nice alternative to Riesling and allow you to discover other terroirs and regions.