Riesling is one of the most popular white wines in the world. Known for its light body, naturally high acidity, and low alcohol content it has wine lovers reaching for a glass on a hot day and wine collectors adding it to their cellars. Its wide range of styles also makes it a dream for food pairing.
Riesling originated in Germany, with its first mention recorded in 1435 after a few Riesling vines were sold to a German count. From there, it continued to grow in popularity until 1787 when it was ordered by an Archbishop that all substandard grape vines be replaced by Riesling vines. 60 years later the wine reached peak popularity and bottles were fetching prices higher than those of Bordeaux and Champagne.
Today, Germany is still the top producer of Riesling, but other countries are growing these green grapes, as well. Australia has the second highest production with the U.S.—California, Washington, and Oregon, specifically—coming in third. Australia, France, and New Zealand, but in much smaller numbers. This is likely due to the fact that producing Riesling is relatively labor-intensive, so most production is done in small batches.
Riesling Tasting Notes
These green grapes are renowned for taking on the characteristics of their terroir, or where they are grown. Each wine is expressive of the climate, soil, and production methods used, so much so that a well-versed palate can identify the origin of the wine by taste alone. With so much versatility, everyone is sure to find a style of Riesling they enjoy.
Although Riesling is very versatile, there are some characteristics that tend to hold true. You will typically find Riesling to be very light in body with high, mouth-watering acidity. The ABV is on the lower end with some German styles in the 6-8% range, but can be higher in warmer regions.
Up front you will find bold fruit flavors of peach, lemon, apple and apricot, followed by notes of honey and ginger. You will also pick up floral and wet stone aromas, and maybe even petrol. It should be noted that while the petrol can be off-putting to some drinkers, for others, this is one of the most sought-after traits in a Riesling as this is an indicator of higher quality. Some of the factors that contribute to the diesel scent are high sun exposure, high acid content, and water stress.
It is often thought that Riesling is a sweet wine, and while that can be true, many Rieslings produced today are dry, off-dry, sweet or sparkling. The reputation for Riesling as a sweet wine likely came from the popularity of German Rieslings which are labeled to indicate the level of sweetness:
The lightest style, produced from grapes that have fully ripened. These are generally dry to off-dry.
The word spätlese means ‘late harvest’ as the grapes are picked after the normal harvesting time. These wines generally have more body and are sweeter than Kabinett.
Auslese means ‘select harvest’, meaning the grapes are specifically selected when they are very ripe. This style is fuller in body with sweet, tropical fruit flavors.
The term Beerenauslese means ‘berry select harvest’ and refers to grapes selected by hand. These grapes are beyond ripe and affected by noble rot—a gray mold deliberately promoted on grapes used to make sweet dessert wines.
Considered one of the greatest sweet wines in the world, Trockenbeerenauslese means ‘dry berry select harvest’ and the grapes are individually chosen once they have shriveled and have the highest sugar levels.
Also known as ‘ice wine, these grapes are picked very late in the year when they are frozen on the vine and then immediately pressed, resulting in highly concentrated, sugary, sweet juice.
Mostly produced in the U.S. and Canada, this blend brings a high amount of acidity. The Riesling offers crisp notes of citrus and apple, while the Chardonnay brings tropical fruit and roundness.
This floral, citrusy blend is dominated by Gewurztraminer rose and lychee aromatics while the Riesling brings acidity and delicate body that balances the wine.
Riesling should always be served chilled, with the ideal temperature of 45-50°F or 7-10°C. Placing the bottle in the refrigerator or in an ice water bath for about an hour prior to serving should bring your wine to its optimal temperature. You will want to take care not to over-chill your Riesling as this will prevent the bouquet from fully releasing. You do not need to decant Riesling, simply open, pour in a white wine glass (we recommend with a stem so the wine is not warmed by your hand) and enjoy!
The aging potential for Riesling is unmatched in the world of white wine, and even with some reds. Its high acidity and complex structure are key factors in its ability to age well. Young Rieslings are fresh and fruit-forward, but mature Rieslings develop more density and complexity, and you will notice stronger notes of honey, butter, and the aforementioned, petrol. The aging period for Riesling is going to depend on the style: 5-15 years for dry, 10-20 years for semi-sweet and 10-30+ years for sweet varieties.
When aging wine, it is important that the wine is stored properly. An area of your house where the temperature is consistent and cool, but not cold, is important. Low humidity is also key and bottles should be stored on their side, not upright. For sweet Rieslings, there should be little to no fluctuation in temperature or humidity. You will also want to avoid excessive light, and make sure there are no vibrations as this will cause chemical reactions that will ruin your wine.
Average Price of Riesling
As with most wines, you can find Riesling in a wide range of prices to fit any budget. There are many varieties in the $6 to $12 range, or you can spend thousands on a premium German bottle. (The 2018 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese will run you $17,957!) Fortunately, you do not have to spend thousands or even hundreds to get a quality wine. There are plenty of quality Rieslings in the $20 to $40 range, with the best hailing from Germany, Austria, Canada, and the Pacific coast of the U.S.
Fun Facts about Riesling
- The offspring of French grape Gouais Blanc and half-sibling to Chardonnay and Gamay Noir. Its other parent is thought to be a cross between a Traminer and wild vine.
- The 19th most planted wine grape in the world and the 7th most planted white variety.
- March 13th is International Riesling Day.
- Riesling was introduced to Alsace in 1477 after the Duke of Lorraine spoke highly of its quality.
- The warm Australian climate produces grapes with skin up to 7 times thicker than those grown in Germany.
- The light green or yellow Riesling grape is bespeckled with pink and light red spots.
- A rare red Riesling, known as ‘roter Riesling’ is grown in Germany and Austria. The wine is similar in taste to white Riesling.