What Does Riesling Wine Taste Like? Learn All About the Riesling Grape Variety
Riesling is typically thought of as one of the more aromatic white wine grape varieties found around the world. It tends to be its most expressive when crafted as a single-varietal, late ripening wine. Many of the finest producers opt to include the name of the particular vineyard a Riesling wine was made from — given its ability to so successfully express Terroir.
In terms of aging, Riesling can go a long way. It ages well in large part due to the fact that it ripens late. Riesling has a canny ability to build up its sugar content slowly and maintain elevated acidity. This variety will do best in regions that offer cooler and or moderate climates. Specific flavor notes and sweetness levels depend on climate, terroir and wine making practices.
Traditionally, noteworthy Riesling wine regions and producers will make a varietal wine that reflects both the climate and terroir of the area. Premium cooler-climate producers making off-dry or dry Riesling will make wines with ripe green, tree fruit notes backed by apple blossom and lime.
Premium moderate-climate producers make Riesling with more stone-fruit-forward (think white peach) notes with hints of banana, mango, melon and or pineapple flavors.
Riesling Sweetness Levels & Growing Regions
Some of the most well known, premium Riesling-producing countries include Germany, Austria, France and Canada. However, it was within Germany, specifically in the Rhine region, where the Riesling grape variety’s roots come from, pun intended. Mentions of Riesling date back to the mid-1400s, and just a couple of decades later there is also evidence of its presence in Alsace, France, where to this day some of the finest Riesling is being produced.
Riesling may be a notoriously German wine, but that doesn’t mean other countries don’t produce it. In fact, beautiful Rieslings are being cranked out of New World countries such as Australia and New Zealand. All of these countries, as well as some up-and-coming Riesling regions produce Riesling wine that can be dry, off-dry, medium and even quite sweet. In an effort to provide an analogy for Riesling sweetness levels, we’ll take a look at the way Germany classifies them, below:
German Riesling – The 7 Levels of Riesling Wine Sweetness
Riesling is a flexible grape variety in terms of the final product. Gorgeous, perfume-esque, aromatic Riesling can be produced regardless of the level of sweetness. For those who may be new to tasting wine, keep in mind that the German sweetness levels we discuss below relate to the flavor of Riesling wine, not the aroma.
From a general perspective, German Riesling is put into two categories. The first is Qualitswein — which is a reference to Riesling that is traditionally dry and on the lighter-side in terms of body. More often than not, Qualitswein depicts the best expressions of German Riesling. It can give off a flower-bomb of an aroma and is delightfully refreshing, acidic and loaded with green and stone fruit flavors on the palate.
Conversely, German Prädikatswein takes it up a notch in sweetness, and this is where the 6 levels of sweetness come into play.
Trocken Riesling’s are the dryest and most common style of Riesling.
The first level of Prädikatswein is Kabinett Riesling. If it weren’t for its sweetness level, Kabinett fruit notes on the palate resemble that of Qualitswein. The difference, however, is that it’s traditionally off-dry or even medium-sweet. These wines typically maintain a lesser alcohol content.
Want to try a great Kabinett style Riesling? Take a look at the Fritz Haag Brauneberger Kabinett Riesling 2014 Vintage. Produced in the quality-Riesling production area of Mosel, Germany, this wine essentially encompasses all that is wonderful about a Kabinett Riesling. It has refined, fresh tree and citrus fruit on the palate with a subtle twang of spice and lemon peel and a slight hint of sweetness.
Spätlese, which most directly is translated as “late harvest,” is the second level of Riesling on the sweetness scale. Because it’s harvested later, these wines have more time to build up their sugar and acid levels. The result is a typically medium-bodied wine with a medium-sweetness and acidity and notes on the palate of lemon zest, melon and or lychee.
Auslese wines can be either medium or medium-full bodied. They begin to give off more prominent notes of tropical and or exotic fruit tones on the palate. While some Auslese are still considered in Germany to be off-dry, they are equally capable of being sweet. Keep this in mind if you come across this style and approach it with an open mind.
It’s starting to get hot in here. And no, Beerenauslese is not a blend of Riesling and Beer. It’s just a funky German name (the next is my favorite, though). These wines are made by letting Riesling grapes linger on the vine to the point that they actually become consumed by botrytis rot. This rot isn’t a bad thing when you’re producing a sweet wine. The flavors become very concentrated as it sucks the liquid right out of the grape. The result is more solids within the grape itself. Beerenauslese wines are still able to maintain an elevated acidic content, which makes them prime for aging. This grapes are also hand-picked.
Depending on whose scale you’re looking at, Trockenbeerenauslese is sometimes considered to be the highest level of sweetness in terms of Prädikatswein. These wines are often more full-bodied than Beerenauslese, and are always considered to be classified as dessert wines. They too are affected by botrytis, otherwise known as “noble rot.” In fact, these grapes are harvest so late they can even look like raisins as they’re picked from the vines.
Lastly, we come to Eiswein. This is just about as sweet and concentrated as Riesling can get. Eiswein is also a late-harvested wine product, but what differentiates it from Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese is that these grapes are frozen on the vine before fermentation occurs, which sucks even more water out of the grape’s chemical structure. At the same time, Eiswein shouldn’t be affected by noble rot, setting it further apart from the two previous classifications. Freezing the grapes on the vine results in an ultra-concentrated dessert wine. Eiswein can only be produced in regions that are cool enough at the end of the growing season to freeze the grapes as they sit on the vine just before harvest and before botrytis sets in.
Riesling Alcohol Content
Alcohol levels (ABV) in Riesling wine vary dependent upon the regions it’s grown and what wine making practices are employed. Typically, the smallest levels of alcohol are found in Kabinett Riesling wines (between 7% — 8%), while higher levels of alcohol can be found in bigger-bodied Rieslings, up to 13% ABV (typical of many Austrian Rieslings).
Calories in Riesling Wine
Caloric content found in Riesling can vary dependent on the style of Riesling you’re drinking. A good range is typically between 120 – 130 calories per 5 ounce pour given the sweetness and or alcohol present in any given wine. This is somewhat on par with other white wine varieties, such as Pinot Gris or Soave.
Regional Riesling Wine Recommendations
The Columbia Valley in Washington State, USA has been producing great tasting Riesling wine in recent years given that the climate and terroir is conducive to growing and manufacturing off-dry Riesling with beautiful green and citrus fruit notes.
On the other side of the New World sits another gorgeous Riesling producing area. That is the Eden Valley in Australia. Other noteworthy regions producing great wine in Australia include the Clare Valley and the Barossa Valley.
Try a classic Eden Valley Riesling. There’s no need to break the bank. Knowing that Riesling is able to depict single-vineyard production so well, Pewsey Vale has managed to craft a consistent product year after year that exemplifies all that a dry and refreshing Riesling should be. The Pewsey Vale Riesling 2015 vintage has also attained numerous 90+ ratings and gives off gorgeous notes of citrus fruit, white flowers and rosemary nuances. In conjunction with refreshing acidity and noticeable minerality.
Try an Alsace, France Riesling. Sustainably produced and found for a more than fair price given the region and production quality, the Zind-Humbrecht Riesling 2015 will allow you to sample the essence of Alsace in a bottle. This is a dry, light, refreshing Riesling with robust minerality, acidity, rounded stone fruit and white peach.
Stone Fruit, Citrus Fruit, Tree Fruit, Green Fruit, Tropical Fruit
Cool Climate: Melon, Pear, Lemon Peel, Lime, Peach, Apricot
Moderate Climate: Nectarine, Mango, Pineapple, Grapefruit, Green Apple, Grape, Lemon Zest
Sweetness and or Botrytis: Honeysuckle, Almond, Smoke, Petrol
Earth & Mineral Notes
Limestone, Crushed Slate, Gravel, Fresh Cut Grass, Underbrush
Apple Blossom, Rock Rose, Floral Perfume, Honeysuckle
Structure & Body
Body Medium - Full
Sugar Dry | Off-Dry | Medium | Sweet
Alcohol Low - Medium (8.0% - 13% ABV)
Fish, Shellfish, Chicken
Given that many Riesling wines are refreshingly acidic, your first thought should migrate towards citrus flavored dishes. Pairing a somewhat acidic wine like Riesling with an acidic style of food helps ensure that the refreshing part of Riesling is balanced by what you're eating. If you eat a non-acidic food with an acidic Riesling, your palate will perceive the wine to be overly acidic. That being said, start with something moderately acidic. The next step is to consider the sweetness level of the Riesling. As we discussed above, Riesling wines come in a variety of sweetness levels. Look for foods along the lines of shellfish or fish filets that are braised in citrus-marmalade or are fried. Fried oyster with avocado and sliced mango, or pan-seared red snapper with lemon-zest are sure to be palate pleasers. At the same time, don't be afraid to experiment with other light seafood or chicken dishes that incorporate invigorating spices such as jalapeno or cilantro, dependent upon the style of Riesling you're putting back.