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Riesling      "Riesling is held to be guilty of sweetness until proven innocent." - Mike Veseth1

photo of Riesling by Tim Ramey.Because of both its cellar longevity and its ability to maintain variety identity while reflecting the individuality of its terroir, Riesling may be the best of all the white wine grapes. Its homeland is Germany, where it has been cultivated since the 1400s or earlier, and where it is made into wines that run the gamut from bone dry and crisp quaffers to the complex, unctuous nectars made from Botrytis-affected, shriveled berries, individually late-picked, and known by the moniker Trockenbeerenauslese.

Sometimes referred to as White, Rhine, or 2Johannisberg, the Riesling name has been tarnished by the attachment of its name to other white varieties (Grey Riesling --aka Chaucé Gris--, Walschriesling --aka Italian Riesling--, and Missouri Riesling) that are of far lesser quality and genetically unrelated to the true Riesling. It does have distant relatives in the Sylvaner (or Franken) Riesling and the crosses, Emerald Riesling (with Muscadelle du Bordelais) and Müller-Thurgau (with Sylvaner). In Germany, there are more than 60 selected Riesling clones available to meet various flavor and growing condition criteria.

Riesling vines are particularly hard-wooded and tolerant of cold weather and they bud late, so are well-suited to the coldest wine-growing climes, but do well where seasonal temperature averages from 56° to 64° F. Riesling is both moderately vigorous and productive, yielding from three to six tons per acre. The berries are small, round and soft when ripe, with tender, greenish-yellow skins that have a flecked appearance from lenticels (lens-shaped pores) on the skins. Hanging in compact, winged clusters and ripening later than other varieties, bunch rot and non-beneficial molds can be a problem if there is much rain or humidity during in the ripening season.

If dry conditions, however, follow a single day of wet, Riesling grapes left on the vine beyond normal ripeness can develop Edelfäule (Nobel Rot). The result of this ugly but non-toxic mold, Botrytis cinerea, is the shriveling of the grapes, the evaporation of much of the juice, and the concentration of the sugar. The German names for this hierarchy, which ascends in order of the must weight or degree of sugar concentration, are Spätlese (late-picked), Auslese (selectively-picked bunches), Beerenauslese (selectively-picked berries), and Trockenbeerenauslese (only the most affected berries), or TBA. These wines have not only incredibly intense and concentrated flavors, but also remarkable life span.

Hillside microclimates which provide cool climates and at the same time plenty of sun exposure, yet protection from the winds are of paramount importance to quality Riesling. The best German vineyards with these conditions on the Mosel River produce wines that are unique in their low alcohol, powerful aroma, and high extract. This grape also is very successful in Alsace, France. The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Riesling are: Santa Barbara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Mendocino, while Washington and Oregon also have done well. Other countries which grow Riesling with much dedication, albeit generally lesser results, are Australia, South Africa, Chile, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, Yugoslavia, and Italy.

Riesling has a powerful and distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard source and is often described as "racy." Its high natural level of Tartaric acid enables it to balance even high levels of residual sugar. The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in riesling-based wines include:

Riesling Smell and/or Flavor Elements

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Growing & Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Floral: woodruff, rose petal, violet
Petroleum: terpene, diesel, kerosene
Stone Fruits: apple, pear, peach, apricot
Mineral: flint, steel, gunmetal
Tropical Fruits: (not usually)


The light, delicately sweet flavor of simple pan-fried-in-butter trout is especially good with Riesling. On the other hand, grilled or sautéed sausage, with its range from savory to spicy, also works well with this variety. In fact, there is arguably a wider range of food matches for Rieslings than for wine varieties that are generally more popular with consumers. As with most foods, spices and sauce should be the factors that determine the wine match, rather than the color of the meat.

by Jim LaMar

Related Links
The latest information about this variety may be found on the frequently-updated New York Times Riesling page.

The International Riesling Foundation provides a wealth of information about Riesling both through content and links to other sites. The IRF also should be applauded for efforts to assist consumers Riesling Taste Profile. by establishing some consistency and simplifying the process of selecting wines appropriate to taste preference or cuisine. Toward that goal, they created a "Riesling Taste Profile" scale and suggested standards (sugar, acid, pH levels) for appropriate use on Riesling labels.

Riesling Rendezvous, first held in 2010, gathers consumers, press, producers, and trade in Seattle and Woodinville, Washington, for a 3-day conference of meals, seminars, and tastings devoted to Riesling appreciation.
Riesling Report cover.

From March, 2000, through December, 2002, the Riesling Report was a bi-monthly electronic magazine (downloadable PDF format) for fans of this and other "unwooded" varieties. Partners Peter Liem and Kirk Wille shared their passion for these wines and Back Issues are available to download for FREE (PDF).

1 Quoted from The Wine Economist, reflecting the general consumer attitude towards riesling in his article, "Marketing Misunderstood (and Misunderappreciated) Wines", July 30, 2013. - - Misunderappreciated? Really? Is this not a double-negative or am I simply nonunenlightened? -ED - - BACK

2 Historically, one of the most famous German producers of Riesling is Schloss Johannisberg. The TTB was scheduled to disallow use of the name "Johannisberg" on any California wine label bottled after January 1, 2006 (NOTE: this phase-out was originally mandated for 1999, but a "trade association" hired a law firm which successfully petitioned for a 7-year extension). Although California wineries should, to be correct and respectful, only use either White Riesling or simply Riesling to designate this variety, there are still many that resist and even refuse to change. BACK

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

3. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

4. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

6. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

7. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996


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Page created March 20, 2002; last updated December 3, 2015
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