No other beverage draws on the story of human history more than wine, and no other fruit known to man manifests itself in so so many different forms, flavors, fragrances, and sensations, as the wine grape is grown from vitis vinifera vines. Within the vitis vinifera species are somewhere between 5000–10,000 grape varieties, of which almost all are useless for winemaking, save a few dozen world-famous grape berries. Riesling is one of the chosen few, and like a lord ruling over a house in the broader kingdom of wine, Riesling takes its rightful place in the noble family of wines. Lords must be born of nobility, at least partly, and Riesling is no exception, although it is not purely aristocratic in ancestry. Riesling was born from a noble descendant of Savignin Blanc (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc) and Gouais Blanc, an esoteric tribal leader style grape from Gaul (Modern France). It is believed that Gouais Blanc was commonly used by Celtic tribes for winemaking, and is also the grandmother of Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Chenin Blanc, Muscadelle and Riesling. Savignin Blanc (also called Traminer) is an ancient noble Germanic grape that parented the well-known Gewürztraminer, a delicious and aromatic cousin to Riesling. The direct parent of Riesling on the Germanic side was a child resulting from Traminer’s trysts with wild vines, thus causing a hybrid grape. It was this bastard that had grapevine sex with the mighty Gouais Blanc, and thus it was so, that Riesling, a child of tribal nobility and Germanic royalty came to dominate many lands across the wine kingdom.
Today Riesling is grown in Germany, Luxembourg, Alsace France, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and Canada. In the United States, Riesling is mostly grown in California, however, it is also found in Oregon, Washington State, Upstate New York, and Michigan. While not overly common in popular culture, Riesling is a widely grown and utilized grape varietal that creates a wide array of wines, from sweet dessert wines to highly aromatic and bone dry dinner wines. While the common perception of Riesling is that of sweet wine, it is, in fact, one of the most elegant and versatile grapes in the world.
Riesling is highly aromatic, displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas, and is almost always marked with notable acidity. One of the hallmark qualities of Riesling is the smell of petroleum, or sometimes described as kerosene, lubricant or rubber. If that makes your head tilt, don’t worry, I’ve been there. The smell I refer to is best described as taking a whiff from an open jar of Vaseline. If you don’t know the smell I refer to, you have probably never been a 13-year-old boy, but chances are you have smelled it at some point in your life. If the idea of drinking a wine that smells like petroleum doesn’t appeal to you, don’t knock it until you try it. There is something delectable about the nose being keenly aware of deep earthy notes of petrol, while at the same time experiencing honey, ginger and citrus blossom. Riesling seduces the palate with flavors of lime, Meyer lemon, peach, and apricot while delivering a high degree of minerality. It may be surprising to hear, but a Riesling wine with more pronounced petrol notes and flavors is considered to be a higher quality wine. In fine wine discussions, it is often referred to as “diesel,” and is indicative of grapes with high sun exposure, water stress (which is a good thing for wine), high acid content, a low yield, or from a late harvest, which are all very good things for wine growers.
Riesling has been estimated to be the world’s 20th most grown variety and rising, however, it is usually included in the top three white wine varieties along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling is known to be highly terroir expressive, meaning that Riesling wine is greatly influenced by the wine grapes place of origin, thus Riesling wines can vary significantly from region to region, and even vineyard to vineyard. By far the most renowned and expensive Riesling wines are the late harvest dessert wines that are the result of letting Riesling grapes hang on the vines well past normal picking time. With late harvest, Botrytis Cinerea (also called grey mold, the same seen on strawberries, raspberries, etc…) begins to live on the grapes and remove water from the berry (grape) by causing evaporation. At just at the right time, winemakers pick all the grape berries and crush them into wine. An alternative process to mimic this effect, but not use fungus, is to freeze the grapes; this is known as Ice Wine, or in German, Eiswein. Late Harvest Rieslings tend to be very concentrated and have more sugar, acid and flavor complexity. All these qualities are highly desirable, so much so that the fungus that grows on the grapes has been deemed “Noble Rot,” as the result is so delicious.
Riesling is difficult to criticize. Like Pinot Grigio, Riesling demonstrates a wide array of expressions and is highly versatile. Unlike Pinot Grigio, Riesling has never been turned into a one-dimensional junk wine ordered as the default white wine for people that like to get drunk but don’t like beer, and aren’t quite in the mood for the hard stuff. No matter which version of it you have in your glass, Riesling is elegant and timeless. A wine monogamist could commit themselves to Riesling, and yet find excellent pairings with fish, bacon, seafood, delicate cheese, dried fruit, roasted vegetables, coconut, and spicy food. Yes, spicy food. So often wines and spicy cuisines do not match, however, the semi-sweet to sweet Riesling wines do well to neutralize the heat, while enhancing the flavors of a variety of spicier cuisines including Thai, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese.
So how do you know if a Riesling is dry and crisp, or sweet, and ready for a Thai restaurant? The labels tell you, but just like most of the labels in wine, they are in a different language. Here is the basic rundown on how to navigate Riesling wines:
- Trocken on the label is telling you that the wine is Dry.
- Kabinett and Spätlese are sweet wines from Germany.
- Rieslings from Alsace are usually dry and are excellent for trying instead of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
- Rieslings are best served at around 42–45 ºF, or 6 ºC.
- Mosel wines are popular and are usually quite good.
- Riesling is almost never blended with any other grape.
- Late Harvest will be better and more expensive.
- Do not drink Piesporter.
These eight guidelines are the most important things to remember when attempting to navigate the world of Riesling. I strongly recommend experimenting with this dynamic Western European wine.
Thank you for reading, Good Luck.