Culinary Arts

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

Written by MasterClass

Jan 26, 2019 • 5 min read

France, Italy, and Napa Valley dominate the popular wine scene. But informed 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 wine grape variety that yields a floral white wine with fruit flavors. The riesling grape originated in the Rhine River region, which runs throughout parts of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Common characteristics of riesling wines include light body and aromas of citrus, stone fruit, white flowers, and petrol. Due to its naturally high acidity, Riesling is one of the most popular varieties used to produce late harvest wines.

What Is the Origin of Riesling?

The history of riesling is murky, but the riesling grape is likely native to Germany. The first recorded mention of riesling appeared in the 1435 sale of several riesling vines to a German count. Green grapes in general, and riesling in particular, grew steadily in popularity until 1787, when the Archbishop of Trier ordered that all bad vines be replaced with riesling varietals. By the 1850s, riesling had become a fashionable and sought-after wine, commanding higher prices than Bordeaux and Champagne.

What Does Riesling Taste and Smell Like?

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.

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. 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.

Younger flavors of riesling are fruit and flower-forward, including:

  • Green, red or yellow apple
  • Grapefruit
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Gooseberry
  • Honeycomb
  • Rose blossom
  • Freshly cut green grass
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What Are the Characteristics of the Riesling Grape?

The riesling grape is characterized by its green skin, round shape, and moderate size. Grapes like riesling and pinot noir are said to express terroir well because they taste very different when grown in different areas.

The flavor and sweetness or dryness of a riesling varies depending on the vineyard soil and location. Each riesling expresses the soil, nutrients, climate, and production methods used. This also means that a sophisticated palate can identify the origin of a riesling just by tasting it.

4 Categories of Riesling

In general, riesling wines fall into four categories.

  1. Sweet riesling. Most rieslings have at least some level of sweetness. Due to terroir, German wines like riesling are usually sweeter. Sweet rieslings are best between 10 and 30 years of age.
  2. Dry riesling. French, Austrian, and American wines tend to be drier than those made elsewhere, and riesling is no exception. The ideal aging period for most dry rieslings is five to 15 years.
  3. Semi-sweet riesling. Falling somewhere in the middle, semi-sweet rieslings are well-balanced wines whose best age is between 10 and 20 years.
  4. Sparkling riesling. Called “sket” in Germany since the late 1800s, sparkling riesling is still a popular option in its home country.


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5 Riesling Types

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 the ripeness (and therefore sweetness) of the grapes when they were picked, with five different levels:

  1. Kabinett (bone dry to off-dry)
  2. Spätlese (sweet)
  3. Auslese (sweeter)
  4. Beerenauslese (very sweet)
  5. Trockenbeerenauslese (sweetest)
a map of germany where they grow riesling wine near the rhine river

Where Does Riesling Grow?

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Riesling likes cool climates and slate soils like those found in the following wine regions:

  • Germany. German riesling is rarely blended with other varieties or exposed to oak, which allows the grape’s natural flavors to shine through. A third of the country’s riesling grows in the Mosel Valley. 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 winemakers, such as Schloss Johannisberg. Finally, Pfalz is a warm, productive region that grows ample riesling grapes with rich flavors.
  • France. Located on the west bank of the upper Rhine, the Alsace region in France has been home to riesling since the late fifteenth century. More than 20% of Alsace’s vineyards are dominated by riesling vines. Alsace riesling has a 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 to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. Riesling is produced in significant quantities in Washington State, Michigan, and the Finger Lakes region of New York.
  • Australia. Despite its hot climate, riesling is also gaining traction in Australia. Major Australian riesling producers include the Clare Valley, Eden Valley, and High Eden regions.
  • New Zealand. The cooler climate of the area around Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island lends itself well to riesling production.
a frozen riesling wine grape

What Is the Difference Between Riesling and Ice Wine?

Historically, the riesling grape has also been used in the production of ice wine. Ice wine is made from 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 wines made from riesling grapes.

What Are the Best Riesling Pairings?

Riesling’s versatility along the sweet to dry spectrum makes it a wonderful wine to pair with a wide range of foods.

To start, pick up a bottle of Riesling Kirchenstück Kabinett Trocken 2016 — Kunstler Common from Rheingau, Germany and dig into any of the following cuisines:

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