Why the Wine World Loves Riesling
If you’ve ever felt like you were the center of attention for all the wrong reasons, Riesling understands.
Riesling faces skepticism from many wine drinkers but year after year, the professional wine world tries to improve the public image of this much maligned grape. Why? When made well, Riesling is a complete package of delights.
One misperception that has been particularly hard to shake off is that all Riesling is sweet. A spate of German over-cultivation in the 1970s and 1980s led to an unfortunate flood of inexpensive, overly sweet Riesling that has left a lasting impression. Even today, several bigger brands have launched inexpensive Rieslings specifically intended to attract consumers who prefer sweet wines.
But Riesling is much more than a one note wine. While it can indeed be sweet – often with wonderful results – one of the variety's many attributes is that it can be made in a range of styles, from very sweet to so dry it threatens to take the enamel off your teeth. The grape’s naturally high acidity is a big factor in this flexibility and more often than not, leaving a bit of sweetness behind – known as residual sugar – helps balance any unpleasant sharpness from super high acidity levels. Until recently Riesling, especially German Riesling, was often so tart that a bit of residual sugar was needed to balance the acidity but increasingly warmer growing seasons has meant that grapes are able to ripen fully in most years.
This high acidity and generally lower alcohol levels makes Riesling easy to pair with an incredible range of foods. The wine's acidity refreshes the palate when paired with rich foods, such as fried chicken or cream-based pastas, and a bit of residual sugar can effortlessly balance highly seasoned and spicy dishes like curries.
Riesling is a bit of a shapeshifter, in that it is exceptionally gifted at expressing the essence of a vineyard site through unique aroma and flavor profiles. Depending on where its grown, Riesling can be light- or full-bodied, delicate or powerful, dry or sweet. There’s literally a Riesling for every palate.
Along with the impressive ability to convey terroir, Riesling is also a champion when it comes to the ability to age. Wine sage Jancis Robinson claims that Riesling can far outstrip any Chardonnay with its aging potential, which transforms the wine into a completely new and different drinking experience with notes of honey, ginger, and even beeswax.
When all of these attributes are considered together, maybe the question that should be asked is What can’t Riesling do?
Where Riesling is Happiest
Many grape varieties have their climate preferences, and Riesling is no different. It presents its best self in cool climates where ripening happens slowly, facilitating interesting floral and fruit flavors, such as ripe or tart peaches, fresh squeezed citrus, and a distinct mineral character. In warmer climates, Riesling can ripen too quickly, resulting in weak and flabby-tasting flavors that all but cancel out the grape’s magical vibrant acidity.
If Riesling had a spiritual home, Germany would be the place. It's the country’s most planted grape, and the Mosel, Pfalz, Rheingau, and Nahe regions produce the most highly regarded wines. The Mosel’s steep slopes of slate (Riesling can help you say that three times fast) produce some of the most iconic wines from this variety: crisp, energizing, and refreshing on the palate.
A third of all of Germany's Riesling grows in the Mosel but the Pfalz also grows a substantial quantity, making a much richer wine that often conveys notes of exotic fruits. The Rheingau showcases a steely and lemony, sometimes mineral-scented, profile. The Nahe offers the raciness of the Mosel combined with the fruit and texture of the Pfalz.
Austria’s Wachau region rivals the Mosel for the purity of its Rieslings, with the Kamptal and Kremstal regions also making strong examples. A slightly warmer climate gives the wines here more body and texture, but they still maintain that wonderful palate-cleansing freshness and terroir-driven character.
In Alsace, the best Rieslings are dry and mineral, with a robust structure and more textural mouthfeel. Distinct aromas and flavors of lemon citrus and white peach, along with a delicate floral character, tend to dominate.
Outside of Europe, Riesling remains adept at finding the cooler climates and mineral-driven soils where it thrives best.
In South Australia – admittedly, not known for its cooler temperatures – the Clare and Eden Valleys are known for producing distinctive dry Rieslings thanks to a higher altitude and cool nights that preserve acidity. The best wines are fuller-bodied, with limestone and floral notes.
New Zealand Rieslings are also garnering attention and are produced in a range of styles, from bone dry to lusciously sweet. The cooler South Island produces more delicate and lighter bodied wines, driven by minerality, while the North Island delivers more richness, texture, and ripe fruit.
In the United States, New York’s Finger Lakes region patterns their Riesling after the style of the Mosel but still with their own unique imprint of citrus, white peach, and a dominating minerality.
In the Pacific Northwest, Washington and Oregon produce both sweet and dry styles that are easy on the palate. Fun fact: Washington State produces the most Riesling in the United States, according to the International Riesling Foundation, with the Columbia Valley offering the climate the grape likes best.
But How Can I Tell if it’s Dry?
The lingering question for many wine lovers is how to tell if a Riesling is sweet or dry.
The label is a good place to start, and common terms include:
Halbtrocken (dry tasting),
Feinherb (off dry),
Kabinett (dry or off-dry),
Auslese (sweet and honeyed), and
Beerenauslese/Trockenbeerenauslese/Eiswein (lusciously sweet dessert wine).
A more recent labeling trend, courtesy of the International Riesling Foundation, is a sweetness indicator scale on the back label. Winemakers asses the balance of residual sugar and total acidity in the wine, and then indicate on the scale the resulting level of perceived sweetness from dry to sweet.
The level of alcohol provides another clue, as wines fermented to full dryness will have a higher alcohol by volume (abv) than sweeter wines. Generally speaking, dry wines will fall into the 11-14% abv range, off-dry in the 9-10.5% range, and sweet wines in the 7.0-8.5% range.
Where the wine was produced also makes a difference. The cooler the climate, the higher the acidity, and the more likely that any residual sugar will be imperceptible.
If you're not already on team Riesling, there's at least one out there waiting to welcome you.
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* For domestic and other New World Rieslings, please call the shop to find out what’s in stock.