Riesling is a white-wine grape variety native to the Rheingau region of Germany where it has been cultivated since the early 16th century. Though often consumed young, Riesling’s substantial acidity, aromas, and concentration of flavors are suitable for extended aging, particularly of wines that contain higher residual sugar content. Riesling is a variety that is highly expressive of its place of origin—it prefers to be a “stand-alone” varietal as it establishes its distinctively seductive personality without the need to be blended with other grapes. In recent history, Riesling had become unfashionable due to some less than quality- oriented winemakers making overly sweet versions with inadequate levels of acidity. Currently, Riesling may be experiencing a bit of a renaissance, as producers have sought better site selection (Riesling prefers cooler areas with temperate climates to allow the grapes to ripen slowly), and are providing drier or sweeter options with ample acidity to provide a more balanced expression of the grape’s personality. Riesling can be categorized in two broad styles: the French style and the German style. Winemakers either will ferment the wine dryer, achieving higher alcohol levels, as in Alsace, France, or will often leave noticeable residual sugar (RS) through partial fermentation, yielding a wine with varying levels of sweetness, as in many German styles. The density and body increase with greater levels of sweetness, providing an effective pairing with more robust, fatty, spicy, or sweet food items. Riesling is also known for producing some of the world’s most celebrated dessert wines. These wines can be made by a combination of methods. Three of the most well-known Riesling dessert wines are from
1. Late Harvest Wine When the grapes are left on the vine for extended hang-time
2. Rot Wine When the grapes are attacked by a friendly fungus (Botrytis Cinerea) that concentrates the aromas/ flavors and structural components
3. Ice Wine When the grapes are frozen on the vine in order to extract water content and therefore concentrate existing juice
This grape is highly aromatic with concentrated aromas and flavors of tree fruits (peach and apricot), tropical fruits (pineapple and golden raisin), citrus fruits (lemon and lime), bakeshop (honey), and minerals (petroleum, flint, metal, and wet stone). The petroleum (or rubber band) aroma/flavor is associated less often with youthful wines and becomes more predominant with quality-oriented and aged ones.
Rieslings can range from dry to sweet and light to full body—largely depending on the level of residual sugar remaining in the wine after the fermentation process. Well-made Rieslings are high in tartaric and malic acids, which are necessary (although sometimes going unnoticed) to balance the wine’s varying levels of sugar content and intense fruit aromatics. The acid also acts as a preservative for long-aging capabilities. Rieslings often remain unoaked (or at minimum, stored in neutral oak barrels) in order to preserve the pure—aromatic fruit and high acidity levels. Determining whether a particular Riesling is dry, off-dry, or sweet can largely be based on the wine’s alcohol content. The lower-alcohol versions (roughly 11 percent or lower) maintain higher levels of residual sugar, providing a richer, more viscous, medium-to-full body wine. The higher-alcohol versions (roughly 12 percent or higher) typically maintain minimal to no perceptible sugar, yielding a dry wine with a light to medium body.
Some prominent locations for Riesling generally offer long, steady growing seasons to allow the grapes to ripen well into the fall time. Arguably the two most significant growing locations include Germany (Mosel and Rheingau) and France (Alsace). Alternative growing areas in the Old World include Austria (Wachau) and Italy (Trentino-Alto-Adige and Friuli). In the New World, Riesling is prominent from Washington state (Columbia Valley) and California (Central Coast); Australia (Clare and Eden Valley), New Zealand (Marlborough, Martinborough, Nelson, and Wairarapa), New York (Finger Lakes), and Canada (Niagara Peninsula).