Riesling is a very misunderstood grape. For some folk it is amazing and for others, it is just downright unappealing. There are a variety of factors that make Riesling such a hit-and-miss varietal which sure makes it a bit of an enigma.
Whether you are a fan of Riesling or not, our wine guide to Riesling will most certainly help you understand the grape a lot better. Who knows, maybe after reading this, you may sway your vote to appreciating Riesling a lot more.
A selection of Rieslings from 1966, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1982, 1983 & 1988 - Photo Credit: catawiki.com
History & Origin of Riesling
Riesling is of origin to the Rhine region of Germany. It has a history dating back to the 15th century when it was first recorded as a varietal. In 1435, high noble Count John IV stated the following: “22 shillings for a Riesling vine cutting for the vineyard". Over the years and throughout Germany and Alsace, Riesling has had many names: Rießlingen, Russelinge, Rissling and Ritzling. It was only in 1552 when the modern spelling Riesling was first documented. The parents of the Riesling grape are Gouais Blanc (also the parent to Chardonnay) and Traminer (a relative of Gewurtztraminer).
Overview of Riesling as a Grape and a Wine
Riesling is a very aromatic white grape variety that is very high in natural acidity. It is the 20th most grown variety in the world, but in terms of popularity as a white wine, it ranks 3rd behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Riesling is a variety that is highly "terroir-expressive", which basically means that the character of Riesling is greatly influenced by where the grapes are grown. It is also a very versatile wine that can be made in a variety of styles that range from dry to sweet and anywhere in between. There are also two common characteristics the make German Riesling so unique: it is very rarely blended and it is often never exposed to any oak at all.
Riesling wines are generally consumed when they are young, especially when made as a fruity and aromatic wine that has notes of green or other apples, grapefruit, peach, gooseberry, honey, rose blossom, and is usually extremely crisp and refreshing due to the naturally high acidity.
However, Riesling's naturally high acidity and range of flavours make it suitable for extended ageing. Because the wine rarely sees any oak, the acidity is vital for the longevity of the wine. Some Rieslings have been known to age 100+ years and still be in perfect drinking condition due to the naturally high levels of acidity from the grape. As a guide, here is a more common recommendation to the ageing potential of Riesling wines. 5–15 years for dry, 10–20 years for semi-sweet and 10–30+ for sweet versions.
The fruit characteristics you typically find in Riesling - Photo Credit: winelush.com
Not Sure Whether a Riesling is Dry or Sweet?
Below is just a quick guide to how German Rieslings are classified and named based on the sugar levels:
- Very sweet – Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) or Beerenauslese (BA)
- Sweet – Auslese or Spatlese
- Off-dry – Kabinett or Halbtrocken
- Dry – Feinherb or Trocken
Styles of Riesling Based on Where they are Grown
Germany: Known for the world’s best Riesling, Germany produces styles that range from bone dry to dessert sweet. Due to the cool temperatures, the flavour profile of German Riesling is associated with green apple, high acidity and good minerality.
Fun Fact: There are different coloured bottles for different regions in Germany:
- Rhine Riesling is bottled in brown bottles
- Mosel Riesling is bottled in green bottles
Alsace: Slightly warmer than Germany, flavours in Alsace differ somewhat by having a much stronger citrus fruit character, with sweeter peach and mango tones, and some light florals such as jasmine.
Australia: The warmer climate here creates for a much thicker skin, resulting in a wine that has an oilier texture with thick honeycomb, toasty characteristics, with citrus and tree fruit flavours such as pink grapefruit, pear and nectarine.
The US: Riesling is most famous on the east coast in the Finger Lakes region of New York. This area creates very light, easy-drinking Riesling that is full of fruit with balanced acidity and structure. Oregon on the west coast is famous for producing styles very similar to that of Germany.
A clear example of Rhine & Mosel Riesling bottles - Photo Credit: whatsintheglasstonight.com
The Infamous Petrol Character in Riesling
On release, certain young Rieslings can reveal a striking petrol note which is sometimes also described as kerosene or rubber. While the petrol character is an integral part of the aroma profile of mature and older Riesling, it can be very off-putting to those unaccustomed to it, especially those who like young Rieslings to be fresh and fruity.
There are certain factors, without being to scientific, that cause the petrol-like aromatics in the wine:
- Ripe grapes, i.e., low yields and late harvest
- High sun exposure
- Water stress, which is most common in regions that do not practice irrigation
- High acid content
These factors are usually also considered to contribute to high-quality Riesling wines, so the petrol note is in fact more likely to develop in top wines from the Old World rather than in simpler wines made from high-yielding vineyards, especially those from the New World, where irrigation is common.
It's clear that the petrol character is an important character in Riesling - Photo Credit: VinePair.com
So what are your thoughts on Riesling after reading this? Are you a fan or do you still despise the grape? I was never a fan before being exposed to some pretty old, rare and highly sought after vintages. It's also funny to think that some Rieslings can be ranked amongst some of the most expensive wines in the world. Now that's some food for thought!
Wether or not, we still feel it is important to provide you as the reader with some extended knowledge of the varietal. You never know, a question about Riesling could come out in a Pub Quiz and from this, hopefully you will have the answer!