Culinary Arts

Learn About Riesling: Grapes, Wine, History, and Region

Written by MasterClass

Jan 26, 2019 • 4 min read

France, Italy, and Napa Valley dominate the popularwine scene. But well-educated connoisseurs know that Germany is home to one of the biggest, richest and oldest winemaking traditions in the world: riesling.

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What Is Riesling?

Riesling is an aromatic white grape that yields a fruity, floral white wine. The riesling grape originated in the Rhine River region, which runs throughout parts of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Common characteristics of riesling include aromas of stones, citrus, stone fruit, white flowers, and petrol; they are light in body and high in acidity.

How Is Riesling Classified?

Very acidic grape varietals, like riesling, are often made into wines with a touch of sweetness to balance their natural acidity. In Germany, riesling wine labels indicate five different sweetness categories:

  • Kabinett (dry to off-dry)
  • Spätlese (sweet)
  • Auslese (sweeter)
  • Beerenauslese (very sweet)
  • Trockenbeerenauslese (super sweet)

The classifications are characterized along the spectrum of sweet to dry and sparkling. Age and terroir are the primary distinguishing factors:

  • Sweet. Most rieslings have at least some level of sweetness. Wines from Germany are usually sweeter (due to terroir). Sweet rieslings are best between 10 and 30 years of age.
  • Dry. French, Austrian, and most American wines tend to be drier than those made elsewhere. The ideal aging period for most dry rieslings is five to 15 years.
  • Semi-sweet. A well-balanced riesling whose best age is between 10 and 20 years.
  • Sparkling. Called ‘sket’ in Germany since the late 1800s, sparkling riesling is still a popular option in its home country.

Learn About the Riesling Grape

Some grapes, like riesling and pinot noir, are said to express terroir well because they taste very different when grown in different areas. The flavor of a riesling varies depending on the vineyard soil and location; this is a key factor in determining sweetness or dryness. Each riesling expresses the dirt, nutrients, climate, and production methods it grows with in unique ways on the palate. It also means that an individual with a sophisticated palate can identify the source location of a riesling just by tasting it.

The general characteristics of the riesling grape include:

  • Green skin
  • Round shape
  • Moderate size
a map of germany where they grow riesling wine near the rhine river

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Where Does Riesling Grow?

Riesling ikes cool climate and slate soils. It is commonly grown in Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz, but it is also gaining traction in Australia.

  • Germany. German riesling is rarely blended with other varieties or exposed to oak, which allows the grape’s natural flavors to shine through. German rieslings are dry and mineraly.
    • Mosel Valley. A third of the country’s riesling grows in the Mosel Valley.
    • Rheingau. One of the country’s 13 winemaking regions, the Rheingau has spawned many of the nation’s best wine innovations and is home to some of the most notable producers, such as Schloss Johannisberg.
    • Pfalz. A warm, productive region that grows ample riesling grapes with rich flavors.
  • France. The Alsace region in France is on the west bank of the upper Rhine. It was home to riesling as early as the late fifteenth century. More than 20% of Alsace’s vineyards are dominated by riesling vines. Riesling wine from Alsace is of higher alcohol content than German riesling due to subtle changes in climate and production process.
  • United States. German immigrants brought their riesling winemaking traditions with them in the late nineteenth century. Riesling is produced in significant quantities in:
    • Washington State
    • Finger Lakes, New York
    • Michigan

What Are Common Characteristics of Riesling Wine?

Rieslings have commonalities in flavor and body.

Younger flavors. Fruit and flower-forward, including:

  • Green, red or yellow apple
  • Grapefruit
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Gooseberry
  • Honeycomb
  • Rose blossom
  • Freshly cut green grass

Older flavors. Some older riesling wines can smell like gasoline, kerosene, or even burnt rubber. For less experienced tasters, that aroma can be off-putting enough to make the entire experience unpleasant. But in fact the scent of petrol signifies that a bottle of riesling is of higher quality than most riesling with more pleasant aromas, because all the factors that lead to the scent of gasoline in riesling grapes—lots of exposure to the sun and to water stress, for example—are the same factors that contribute to higher quality wines.

Body. Riesling is very acidic—approaching the levels found in lemonade or orange juice—leading to an enjoyable crisp taste when rounded out with sugar. It also maintains a juicy finish.

Is Riesling a Cheap Wine?

Riesling lacks popularity and cache among the casual wine-drinkers of the world; the lack of demand drives the average cost of riesling down. However, considering its high quality and versatility, riesling is a bargain for smart shoppers and wine drinkers in the know.

a frozen riesling wine grape

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What Is the Difference Between Riesling and Ice Wine?

The riesling grape has an additional use past making traditional riesling wine: ice wine. Ice wine is made from riesling grapes that are left to freeze while on the vine so that their natural sugars concentrate. They are then harvested and processed, while still frozen, to yield a sweet dessert wine with deep, fruity flavors. Germany, Canada, and Austria are notable producers of ice wine from riesling grapes.

What Pairs Best With Riesling?

Riesling’s versatility along the sweet to dry spectrum makes it a wonderful wine to pair with a large variety of foods. To start with, pick up a bottle of Riesling Kirchenstück Kabinett Trocken 2016 — Kunstler Common from Rheingau, Germany and dig into any of the following cuisines:

The Best Rieslings, From Germany to America, and Dry to Sweet

Riesling features many varieties and palates; try sampling by region or by style:

Germany

  • Peter Jakob Kuhn Jacobus Gutswein
  • Georg Breuer Rheingau Charm
  • Dreissigacker Organic Rheingau Trocken

Alsace, France

  • Paul Blanck Classique
  • Francois Baur Herrenweg

American

  • Forge Cellars Les Alliés
  • Bellwether Wild Ferment Riesling A&D Vineyard

Sweet

  • Paradise Peak
  • Pacific Rim

Dry

  • Dr. Loosen (Dr. L) Riesling
  • Relax Riesling

Semi-sweet

  • Rock View Riesling Columbia Valley
  • Brooks 2016 Cahiers Riesling