Learn All About Riesling Wines
Last Updated on April 3, 2023.
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 from which the grapes were harvested due to its ability to so successfully express terroir.
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Traditionally, Riesling producers will make varietal wines that reflect 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. Classic fruit notes are melon, pear, lemon peel, lime, peach, and apricot.
Premium moderate-climate producers make Riesling more stone-fruit-forward, with notes of nectarine or white peach with mango, pineapple, grapefruit, and green apple.
Sweeter Rieslings typically also display honeysuckle, almond, smoke, and a distinctive petrol note.
Because Riesling can be vinified from bone-dry to very sweet, Germany created a classification system to help consumers understand what the labels mean.
German Riesling has 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. Often, 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 following levels of sweetness come into play:
Trocken Rieslings are the driest 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.
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 is still considered in Germany to be off-dry, they are equally capable of being sweet. Keep this in mind when coming 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. These wines are made by letting Riesling grapes linger on the vine to the point that they become consumed by botrytis rot. This rot isn’t a bad thing when 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. These grapes are also hand-picked.
Depending on which scale is being used, 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 harvested so late they can even look like raisins as they’re picked from the vines.
Lastly, we come to Eiswein (also known as Ice Wine). 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 extracts 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.
Given that many Riesling wines are refreshingly acidic, it’s a natural pairing for citrus-flavored dishes. Pairing a somewhat acidic wine like Riesling with an acidic style of food helps ensure that the refreshing part of the wine is balanced by the dish.
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.
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 originated. 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 Rieslings are 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 created in New World countries such as Australia and New Zealand. All of these countries, as well as some up-and-coming regions produce Riesling wine that can be dry, off-dry, medium and even quite sweet.
Riesling is one of the most versatile grapes when it comes to age-ability. Acid and sugar levels both lend to age-worthiness and Riesling is naturally high in both. High-quality German Rieslings have been known to age for decades, evolving to be lush and mellow with time. Inexpensive iterations are meant to be enjoyed immediately – though we think it would be a fun experiment to see how they age too!
- Dönnhoff, Oberhäuser Brücke, Auslese, Nahe, Germany
- Müller-Catoir, Burgergarten “Im Breumel”, Pfalz, Germany
- Trimbach, Alsace, France
- Meyer-Fonne, Wineck-Schlossberg, Grand Cru, Alsace, France
- Domäne Wachau, Federspeil, Bruch, Wachau, Austria
- Nikolaihof, Steiner Hund, Wachau, Austria
- Pewsey Vale, Dry Riesling, Eden Valley, Barossa, South Australia, Australia
Learn About These Other Wine Grape Varieties
Written By Jamie Metzgar
Jamie Elizabeth Metzgar began her career in wine by pouring in a tasting room on the East End of Long Island, NY. After moving to New York City, she landed a position at Chambers Street Wines where she was encouraged to pursue wine education at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). She earned Level III certification there and has since earned California Wine Appellation Specialist and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications as well. After way too many moves, she has recently landed in Northern California where she is compiling an unofficial roster of dog-friendly tasting rooms.
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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.