grapes

Riesling: The Beginners Guide (2021)

Wine Color: Straw yellow
Characteristics: Aromatic, acidic
Color of berry skin: Greenish-yellow
Flavor: dry, semi-dry, or sweet
ABV: 7-13% 
Origin: Germany
Notable Regions: Germany, Austria, Alsace, Australia, New Zealand
Most Expensive Bottle: Egon Muller, Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese – $7,500 on average!
Common synonyms: Weißer Riesling, Rheinriesling, Rizling, Gentile Aromatique Petracine, Petite Riesling, Riesling blanc, Petit Rhin, Grauer Riesling, Johannisberger Riesling

Riesling is one of the world’s highest quality and most culturally influential wine varieties and is prized by connoisseurs and amateurs alike. This white wine owes its worldwide reputation as the queen of vines above all to its lively and varied aromas. Despite the particularities of the growing region, which are reflected in the bouquet, the Riesling retains its typical acidic taste. 

What is Riesling?

Riesling is a white grape and wine variety that is counted among the highest quality and most culture-defining growths. The best Rieslings are produced in climatically cooler wine-growing regions. The variety is mainly cultivated in Germany, but also in numerous other wine-growing countries. 

Riesling wines enjoy a high reputation on international markets. Although only 40,000 of the world’s 7.5 million hectares of vineyards are planted with it (1), it is considered the highest quality and noblest white wine variety in the world: Riesling – a superstar. 

Winemakers love it because it can produce a variety of styles that can hardly be surpassed. 

This is due, on the one hand, to the fact that the Riesling responds excellently to the terroir, especially on slate and granite soils, and on the other hand, that it offers the wine lover everything from delicate, playful dry wine to voluminous fruity wines to noble sweet Riesling wines such as Auslese or even Trockenbeerenauslese can offer, especially since the latter are among the highest quality and most exclusive of their kind in the world.

Riesling vs. Chardonnay vs. Pinot Grigio vs. Gewurztraminer

First, it is important to know that these are all White Varietals. They can be grown anywhere in the world, but depending on where they are grown, they have very different styles. 

Chardonnay vs Riesling: Chardonnay is usually dry, has notes of melon, lemon, and vanilla (usually from aging in oak), and sometimes a creamy brioche flavor from malolactic fermentation. It can be buttery and creamy or crisp, mineral and acidic, depending on where it was made and what style of wine the winemaker is aiming for, but very unlike a Riesling.

Riesling vs Pinot Grigio: Pinot Grigio (or Gris) is much smoother and quite easy to drink, quite like a Riesling. A Grigio is the Italian style of winemaking. It is drier, crisper, and more herbaceous than the aromatic and sometimes “not quite dry” Riesling.

Gewurztraminer vs Riesling: Although both originating in Germany, there is a marked difference in weight and texture between the aromatic varieties Riesling and Gewurztraminer: Riesling is all about vivacity, often with a hint of minerality, and whether sweet or dry, it usually has a crisp finish; Gewurztraminer is more lush and rich with a silky or oily texture, and the best have a firm, dry finish.

Riesling Characteristics

Riesling characteristics show a slowly ripening grape variety whose defining element is fruity acidity. Therefore, it is predestined for the northern growing areas, where it completes its maturity in the late autumn sun. 

It places the highest demands on the location (energy), but low demands on the soil. Depending on the location (soil type and microclimate), it brings very different nuanced wines. Optimal conditions are offered by the heat-storing stony steep slopes along the river valleys. 

The Riesling grapes are bright yellow with greenish reflections and reveal pleasant notes of stone fruit and ripe apple on the nose. The acidity of the Riesling keeps the palate entertained and is accompanied by both fruitiness and fine minerality. It is not uncommon for a Riesling to also show subtle notes of petrol. 

The Riesling alcohol content (ABV) of the wine varies depending on the growing region and the method of vinification. As a rule, Kabinett Riesling wines have the lowest alcohol content (between 7% and 8%), while the fuller-bodied Rieslings have a higher alcohol content (up to 13% ABV ) (typical of many Austrian Rieslings).

Riesling Taste Profile

The Riesling grape variety is aromatic, delicate, and expressive. The wine is described as racy, lively, freshly elegant, steely, and mineral. Riesling characteristics are a spicy, fruity acidity. Fruity aromas of stone fruit (apricot) and exotic fruits determine the character of the wine. 

The color of the wine can range from pale yellow with green glints to golden yellow. The full maturity of the wine is reached only after longer vinification. Young wines can still appear acidic and inharmonious in taste. 

It offers aromas reminiscent of lime when the grapes are not quite ripe, and when they have reached their full maturity, notes of lemon, pineapple, or peach emerge. There are also other fruity aromas reminiscent of apples, apricots, or nectarines. 

With age, they can also develop aromas reminiscent of toasted bread or honey, and if the vine has been grown in warmer climates, their wines usually express aromas reminiscent of exotic tropical fruits. Riesling blended with other grape varieties are not common, and as a rule, Riesling wines are not aged in wooden barrels so that the presence of wood does not adversely affect the Riesling flavor. 

Riesling Ageability

Older and aged Rieslings show their qualities much more clearly after ten, 20 or 30 years than when they are young – but also their weaknesses. Sometimes the wines lack freshness, sometimes tension, sometimes balance. They can grow old. But they do not refine. In other words, it would have been better to drink Riesling earlier.

Undoubtedly, Rieslings where everything is just right develop qualities over the years that one would hardly suspect at a young age. This is true for expensive as well as inexpensive wines.

By the way, residual sugar is not an element of aging either. It is true that residual sugar, like acidity and alcohol content, is one of the components that ensure the right balance in the wine (whereby the higher extract and sulphur values, which noble sweet Riesling wines inevitably have, naturally increase the aging potential). Ultimately, however, balance alone determines whether a Riesling becomes duller with age.

Known Regions for Riesling

Worldwide, almost 60,000 hectares have been planted with Riesling, 40% of the vineyards are in Germany. Let’s have a look at where the grape variety is growing well.

Germany

As one of the leading growers of Riesling, accounting for 40% of the market, German Riesling has a lot to offer! Since 2008, the Pfalz has been in the lead in terms of area: with 5,900 hectares of Riesling, more is cultivated here than on the Mosel, where there are only 5,400 hectares (2)! Both can be distinguished stylistically well. 

Because the varieties from the Pfalz are riper, fuller, and more opulent than those from the more northern region. After all, around 2,000 hours of sunshine a year ensures plenty of ripe fruit (peach, apricot, mango) and somewhat less wine acidity. Of course, there are exceptions, and so you can find steely variants here, too.

Alsace

In close proximity, France has 4,000 acres of French Riesling – almost all in Alsace. The wines are richer and higher in alcohol than their German counterparts and tend to have stone fruit and citrus flavors. The sweet varieties here are called Vendanges Tardives when they are made from fully ripe or slightly dried grapes. Sélection de grains nobles are the noble sweet variety and correspond to a Trockenbeerenauslese.

Canada

Further north, Canada’s 1,200 acres of Riesling vineyards are rather small. But here, winemakers specialize in a style we have previously left out. Icewine. Canada is the largest producer of ice wine in the world. Part of it is made with Riesling, which can thus show its full potential as a grape variety Cool Climate. 

As in German Riesling, the grapes freeze on the vine in winter, at least -7 degrees Celsius must be there for it. The frozen berries yield wines with a concentrated, fresh-fruity taste with high acidity – also a highly exciting rarity that is only available when it is cold enough!

Popular Blends of Riesling

Although usually made as a single varietal, there is one particular blend that is famous in North America. 

Chardonnay-Riesling blended wines are a combination of the two most respected white wine varieties in the world. Chardonnay is known as the grape variety from which the famous white wines of Burgundy are made, while Riesling is responsible for some of the most expensive wines in the world. 

Because both grape varieties are so famous in their own right, it often does not make sense to blend them together. Still, there are a handful of lighter, easy-drinking examples, mostly from the United States and Canada.

Chardonnay-Riesling flavor wines are often characterized by high acidity, as both varieties retain their acidity in cooler climates. Chardonnay contributes tropical notes, stone fruit, and some roundness, while Riesling is often responsible for tangier notes of citrus, apple, and pear. 

The blend’s high acidity makes it well-suited for sparkling wine production, and it is also often used in the sweet ice wines of Canada’s Niagara region.

How to Enjoy Riesling?

Riesling is a wonderfully diverse wine. With the many different styles it offers, from dry to sweet, there are many ways to enjoy a nice glass of Riesling, whether it be with food, on its own, or as the Germans make it, as a Weinschorle! (wine served with sparkling water.)

Food Pairings

Riesling is a wonderfully diverse wine that will go particularly well with a range of dishes!

Riesling for starters

If the wine is to be served with an appetizer, a dry version is recommended here. A good example is the Riesling Kabinett. Riesling wine goes particularly well with fish, light soups or a seafood salad.

Riesling with the main course

As with the starter, a fine dry Riesling should also be served with the main course. This white grape variety goes particularly well with white meat and fish. The same applies to spicy dishes. A late harvest Riesling is also a good accompaniment to Asian dishes for the main course.

Riesling with dessert

With desserts, care should be taken to ensure that the Riesling has a certain sweetness. Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Edelsuesse and Trockenbeerenauslese are advantageous here. If the dessert consists of a hearty cheese platter instead of a sweet dish, a sweet Riesling in the Beerenauslese category is recommended here. The interplay of hearty cheese and concise sweetness makes for a perfect end to the menu.

Temperature

With an optimal white wine temperature, you ensure that the wine can properly develop its bouquet and its various aromas. So how do you know which drinking temperature for white wine guarantees maximum drinking pleasure? Here are a few tips on how best to serve the drink!

Drinking white wine differs from drinking red wine in the following ways:

  • Lower drinking temperature
  • Small glasses
  • Carafing or decanting is usually unnecessary

The perfect drinking temperature of a white wine depends primarily on its taste. As a rule of thumb, the sweeter the wine, the colder you should enjoy it!

Aromatic white wines from grape varieties such as simple Rieslings can tolerate cooler temperatures such as those between 8 and 10 degrees Celsius. Dry white wines like an aged Riesling, which have a fuller body, require a few degrees more and are preferably enjoyed somewhere between 12 and 14 degrees.

Stemware

The range of wine glasses is vast, so vast, in fact, that it is quite difficult to orient oneself when buying wine glasses. Sure, white wines are drunk from smaller glasses than reds, but how crucial are shape and size, and do they really need to be more than these two types of glasses? And as Riesling produces so many varieties of wine, which glass do you choose from?!

Light white wines, for example, a young Riesling, are the best drunk from narrow white wine glasses of small volume. A glass shaped in this way brings out the aroma and fruit best.

Luscious white wines, for example, a ripe Spatlese Riesling, need more air to develop their aroma – therefore the white wine glass may have more volume.

Ice wines, Beerenauslese, and other Riesling sweet wines are usually served in small glasses. A glass with a small goblet is therefore ideal – it ensures that the high residual sweetness of these wines is not emphasized.

How Is Riesling Made?

The delicate nature of the Riesling grape requires special handling at harvest to avoid bruising or bruising the skin. Otherwise, the broken skins could release tannin into the juice, resulting in a distinctly coarse taste and unbalancing the flavor and aroma palette of the Riesling (3).

The grapes and juice can be chilled frequently during winemaking, as the Riesling tastes best in its “freshest” state. Once right after harvest to preserve the finer flavors of the grapes. 

The second time after the juice has been pressed through a bubble press, and immediately before fermentation. During fermentation, the wine is cooled in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, kept between 10 and 18°C. This differs from red wines, which normally ferment at 24 to 29 °C.(4)

Unlike Chardonnay, most Rieslings do not undergo malolactic fermentation. This helps to preserve the wine’s tart, an acidic quality that gives Riesling its thirst-quenching quality. 

Riesling often undergoes a process of cold stabilization, in which the wine is stored just above freezing. The wine is kept at this temperature until much of the tartaric acid has crystallized and precipitated out of the wine (5)

History of Riesling

Riesling is a natural cross between Heunisch × Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris and the Traminer clone and was probably selected from wild vine stands on the Upper Rhine.(6)

The early distribution of Riesling with the first evidence of the 15th century, the growth, the size of the grape berries, the long ripening period and frost resistance show the relationship with the wild vines. (7)

The longest Riesling tradition probably has the winegrowers in the Rheingau and on the Moselle; from there there are historical documents that can be dated to the years 1435 or 1465. On March 13, 1435, the word Riesling was mentioned for the very first time in a document. 

Indications of the distribution in today’s Rhenish Hesse and the Palatinate date from the end of the 15th and the first half of the 16th century (8). Riesling is not only one of the grape varieties recommended by the state today, but also in the 17th and 18th centuries. (9)

Alternatives for Riesling

Want an alternative to Riesling? We have you covered! Next time, why not try any of these great substitutes to Riesling you can find in any supermarket! There are many wines that make a great substitute for Riesling, and here are a few suggestions to help you in the right direction!

Chenin Blanc

Originating in France this white grape variety is made into fine and long-lived sweet wines. On the other hand, the winegrowers press sparkling wines from it, which are very pleasant and fresh to drink due to their high acidity. Between these two extremes, there is every conceivable type of white wine. Between fruity and spicy, everything is there.

Assyrtiko

Assyrtiko is the basis of the great white wines of Greece. The wines are similar to Riesling in structure and acidity. Both are fresh, crisp, and can age very well. In older vintages of Assyrtiko, honey notes and earthy tones emerge, reminiscent of German or Alsatian Rieslings. Both grape varieties are well suited for sweet wines.

Albariño

Grown mainly in the northwest of Spain. Wines made from the Albariño grape are fresh and dry, like Riesling, but a little more delicate and gentle. Its long finish gives it more opportunity to pair with food. It reminds a little of the citrus notes of a Riesling flavor but is complemented with ripe peach and apple.

FAQ

Is Riesling a good wine? 

Yes, it is! This Good German Riesling white wine owes its high reputation worldwide as the queen of the vines above all to its lively and diverse aromas.

What kind of wine is Riesling?

Riesling is a wine made from a white grape variety, known for making styles from dry, acidic wines to sweet Riesling white wines. A wine to suit all palates!

Which is better, Riesling or Moscato? 

It’s a personal choice! If you like sweeter, more tropical flavored wine, then you will prefer Moscato. If you like drier, more citrus, and orchard fruit-flavored wine, then go for a Riesling!

Is Riesling a cheap wine?

Riesling wines can be bought at a range of prices! From under 10$ to the finest wine, it produces wines to suit any type of budget!

What do you eat with Riesling?

A bottle of white Riesling goes with a range of dishes! From lightly spiced Asian food to seafood, poultry, pork, pasta and rice dishes, vegetables, and cheese!

What is the difference between Riesling and Gewurztraminer?

Made from two different white grape varieties, Riesling is supposed to be sweet to balance its acidity, but some modern varieties are drier. Gewurztraminer can also be dry but is often made sweeter. 

Which is sweeter, Riesling or Pinot Grigio?

While it produces a range of different wines, from dry to sweet Riesling, even the driest wine is still sweeter than a Pinot Grigio.

Is Gruner Veltliner like Riesling?

Not quite! Riesling is an aromatic white grape variety from the Rhine region, sweeter with a lower Riesling wine alcohol content. Gruner Veltliner is a white, citrusy wine from Austria, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak regions.

What does Riesling taste like?

Riesling is known for its expressive fruity and floral notes. The fruit character can range from bright citrus to juicy stone fruit and pineapple flavors.

What is the meaning of Riesling? 

Riesling is dry to very sweet white wine made from a single grape variety originally grown in Germany but can be cultivated elsewhere in the world.

How long does Riesling last once opened? 

The light white wines like Riesling should remain fresh for up to two days after opening, provided it has been properly stored, closed and refrigerated.

What does off-dry Riesling mean? 

An off-dry Riesling is a wine that contains a slightly sweet element. This may be a wine that contains a small amount of residual sugar to create a perceived Riesling sweetness levels.

What is the difference between Chardonnay and Riesling? 

Chardonnay has slightly less acidity and the flavor effects of tropical fruit are noticeable. Rieslings are characterized by fresh fruit flavors and spicy influences.

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