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The Riesling Grape


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About Riesling

(Synonyms: Beyaz Riesling, Johannisberg, Kleinriesling, Klingelberger, Lipka, Petit Rhin, Raisin Du Rhin, Rajinski Riesling, Renski Riesling, Renski Rizling, Rhein Riesling, Rheinriesling, Riesling Edler, Rielsing Gelb, Riesling Renano, Riesling Rhénan, Riesling Weisser, Risling, Rizling Rajnski, Ryzlink Rýnský, Starovetski, Weisser Riesling, White Riesling)

Background

Map showing the Rhine river.

Riesling is a white-wine grape originating in the Rhine Valley of Germany. It is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class white-wine grapes; in fact, many wine experts would class Riesling the greatest wine grape in the world, ahead of such red superstars as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon—despite which it gets little respect in the U.S., being widely regarded as simply cheap, simple, sweet plonk.

The Riesling grape is naturally a very high-acid grape, which means that when properly vinified, it can not merely withstand bottle age, but continue to develop and improve, sometimes for many decades. The high acid, combined with high natural sugars, makes possible a very evenly-balanced wine, which can well display the rich and deep flavors also natural to the grape.

Riesling wines are typically highly aromatic, with complex and profound floral scents in the nose, which also appear in the taste. Moreover, it is a wine that is quite apt at displaying the much-prized quality of terroir (at least when respectfully vinified). Curiously, fine Rieslings also exhibit a quality commonly described as “petrol”, which does not sound at all appetizing but which somehow, in Rieslings, manages to be so (though some wine drinkers are so repelled by the idea that mention of it as a Riesling characteristic is being downplayed by makers, some of whom even strive to minimize or eliminate it, despite the harm they thereby do to the overall flavor, character, and age-worthiness of their wines).

Riesling is very rarely blended, and almost as rarely sees any oak (save occasionally some “neutral” oak). It is never made as a “woody” wine.

The biggest problem Riesling presents to the consumer is its sweetness: not how sweet it is or isn’t, but knowing how sweet it is or isn’t. Rieslings can be and are vinified everywhere from bone dry (especially in Alsatia) to dessert-sweet (many German wineries produce a veritable host of Riesling bottlings, differing chiefly in their sweetness), and it was long a problem for shoppers, even with a bottle in hand to inspect, to try to determine which sort they might be dealing with. Especially for Old World Rieslings is this difficult: Goethe famously remarked that “Life is too short to drink poor wine”, leading Martin Amis to wittily remark something to the effect that reading a German wine label is another thing life’s too short for. Fortunately, in recent years an organization called the International Riesling Foundation came up with a uniform sweetness-labelling scheme that now adorns many bottles of Riesling. Its essence is four levels of sweetness: Dry; Medium Dry; Medium Sweet; and Sweet. But if you encounter bottles not so labelled, here's a clue: look at the alcohol content. If the alcohol is 11% or under, the wine is definitely off dry; if it is 13% or above, the wine is dry; if it is from 11% to 13%, the sweetness is probably proportionately along the spectrum (“probably” because other factors influence the perception of sweetness in a wine).

(Recall that alcohol is produced by the fermentation of the sugars in the raw grape juice; the more alcohol there is in the final wine, the more of the original sugars that were fermented away. There is a good, detailed discussion of the sweetness of Rieslings at the German Wine Lover site, and another at the StarChefs site.)

Note that label notes other than those set forth by the IRF are chancey guides at best; many an American-made Riesling labelled “dry” would go best with the dessert course. Nor are the classic Germanic “ripeness” terms (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, and so forth)—even if you memorize them—much help, because the ripeness only indicates the potential of the grapes: a given vintner can vinify a given lot of grape juice as he or she pleases, making (for example) a “Spätlese” that is actually drier than a “Kabinett”, though the Spätlese juice was originally higher in sugars. In the end, the consumer must, if there is no IRF mark available, go by the alcohol content and, ideally, by the reputation of the wine (which requires some foresight and study). Even if you have an appetite for all levels of sweetness, you still want to know which one you’re going to get on a given day.

Rieslings are today made all over the world, over a huge range of both style and quality. In the U.S., its history has been a sad one. An early flood of Rieslings, made simple and sweet and cheap, firmly planted the image of Riesling as a cheapo wine; today, winemakers who want to make wines that live up to the potential of the grape fight an uphill battle, because many consumers simply will not pay more than a few dollars for a bottle of “that cheap goop”. The tide is starting to turn, but progress so far is glacial. (Those of an age will recall the same thing having happened to the excellent noble grape Chenin Blanc.)

Riesling does well in cool climates, thriving where other “noble” grapes might struggle, and so has been popular in regions with limited climatic possibilities for wine. Probably the most important Riesling sources today are, more or less but not exactly in this order, Germany, the Alsace region of France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada, though those are far from all. There is no definite pattern associating style with region, but broadly speaking the middle-European makers tend to go for dry Rieslings, while new World makers tend to style a bit off dry. The regional wines also vary a deal owing to the differing soils in which they are grown, the wine being, as already noted, excellent at conveying terroir. Not many makers are producing the great Rieslings that want one or more decades of aging to approach their full potential, but there are probably more Alsatians of that sort than in the other regions.

If one relies on Wikipedia, these are (always painting with a very broad brush) the regional characteristics:

Again a caution: those are rough rules of thumb with, no doubt, countless exceptions.

Factoid: Riesling has its own producer society, the International Riesling Foundation, whose web site is a useful resource on the subject.

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Some Descriptions of Riesling Wines

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Some Rieslings to Try

(About this list.)

Pewsey Vale Dry Riesling
(This is their basic Riesling, not any of their sub-named bottlings, such as their Contours, Prima, or 1961 Block bottlings.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Pikes “Traditionale” Riesling

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling
(Do not confuse this with their upscale Eroica “Gold”.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Mönchhof Urzig Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks

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For a Splurge

Our nomination is the Domaine Ostertag “Muenchberg” Alsace Grand Cru. (That is their base “Muenchberg” Riesling bottling, not any of their sub-named botlings (such as their Vendange Tardive, Vielle Vignes, or A360P).

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks

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This page was last modified on Wednesday, 22 January 2020, at 2:14 pm Pacific Time.