Riesling is that rarest of grape varieties, one that’s capable of speaking many languages, yet always with a distinctive voice. The voice is its unique varietal signature—that bright fruit character that screams “Riesling”—while the various languages reflect where the vine is grown.
For many beginning drinkers, Riesling’s fruit character attracts and enchants for the different fruit qualities the variety expresses: the fresh citrus and green apple notes of barely ripe fruit, the peach and spice of fully ripened grapes and the dried apricot and honey of botrytis-affected, late-harvest wines. No matter the ripeness level, sweetness and tartness play off each other in a way that few other grape varieties can match.
Among wine cognoscenti, Riesling’s polylinguistic abilities, or its transparency, is what is treasured most. Transparency is a grape variety’s ability to project characteristics representative of its site and climate in a finished wine. While every grape is capable of this to some extent, none seems as adept at it as Riesling.
One reason for this is that Riesling winemaking largely eschews the use of wood for maturation. When used, the wood is usually old enough to be effectively neutral, imparting no additional flavors to the wine. It’s like hearing a song sung in person, unhindered by microphone, amp or speaker.
No other country can claim Riesling as its own with the same authority as Germany. The earliest documented reference to it dates back to 1435 in the Rheingau, one of the country’s great wine regions. Rheingau bottlings are often the most aristocratic of German Rieslings, brimming with barely restrained power, whether made in dry (trocken), off-dry to sweet (fruchtig) or noble sweet styles.
By contrast, the wines of the Mosel River Valley and its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer, are highly aromatic, more delicate and filigreed than those of the Rheingau, though not without strength. These wines, like those of the Nahe, come from cool origins; their backbones are built on acidity, not alcohol. Alcohol levels rarely exceed 12% abv, even in trocken bottlings, and are more typically around 8% in fruchtig wines.
The Rieslings of the Pfalz are often the biggest, most opulent of German Rieslings. Dry styles are very successful here, as the Pfalz is the sunniest wine region in Germany. While Mosel wines typically evoke green apple and citrus over wet slate, Pfalz Rieslings can show more peach and even tropical fruit notes, underscored by a unique, briny minerality.
Quality German wines are almost always classified according to the must weight at harvest (the amount of sugar present), which can be useful in estimating the sweetness of fruchtig bottlings.
Kabinett wines are off-dry in style, with spätlese and auslese getting sweeter and sweeter. Noble sweet wines—truly dessert-like in style—include beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, often referenced as BA and TBA. Eiswein, made from grapes that have frozen on the vine, is similarly sweet.
A. Christmann (Pfalz), August Kesseler (Rheingau), Diel (Nahe), Dr. Bürklin-Wolf (Pfalz), Dr. Loosen (Mosel), Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz), Dr. Wehrheim (Pfalz), Egon Müller (Mosel), Franz Künstler (Rheingau), Fritz Haag (Mosel), Georg Breuer (Rheingau), Georg Mosbacher (Pfalz), Grans-Fassian (Mosel), Gunderloch (Rheinhessen), Hermann Dönnhoff (Nahe), Heymann-Löwenstein (Mosel), Joh. Jos. Christoffel (Mosel), Joh. Jos. Prüm (Mosel), Johannishof (Rheingau), Josef Leitz (Rheingau), Prinz (Rheingau), Karthäuserhof (Mosel), Keller (Rheinhessen), Knipser (Pfalz), Koehler-Ruprecht (Pfalz), Markus Molitor (Mosel), Müller-Catoir (Pfalz), Ökonomierat Rebholz (Pfalz), Reinhold Haart (Mosel), Robert Weil (Rheingau), St. Urbans-Hof (Mosel), Schäfer-Frölich (Nahe), Schloss Johannisberg (Rheingau), Selbach-Oster (Mosel), Wittmann (Rheinhessen).
Dry Rieslings may be paired with anything from shellfish or fin fish to poultry or pork. Conventional advice pairs the off-dry or sweet versions with spicy or sweet dishes, like those found in many Asian cuisines, but duck or goose can also work. An aged spätlese or auslese can pair wonderfully with boar or venison. The really sweet styles—BA, TBA and eiswein—are best on their own or with salty cheeses, including blues. If serving one with dessert, make sure the wine is always sweeter than the dessert it accompanies. —Joe Czerwinski
97 Schloss Johannisberg 2009 Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (Rheingau). Valckenberg International, Inc. Cellar Selection.
abv: 6% Price: $445/375 ml
92 Dr. Loosen 2009 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese (Mosel). Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 8% Price: $32
91 Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan 2009 Riesling Trocken (Pfalz). Magellan Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 11.5% Price: $17
Riesling vines take up 20% of the land devoted to vineyards in Alsace. The main concentrations are around the wine route cities of Eguisheim, Turckheim, Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr in the central and southern portions of the French Haut-Rhin département. Other vineyards are further north in the Bas-Rhin département.
Balance is the key to Alsace Riesling. The region’s clay and chalk soils produce wines with around 13% alcohol by volume (often more powerful than German Riesling, for example) and are generally full-bodied and dry. They exhibit a stony, mineral character, rounded out by peach and citrus flavors.
Richer, sometimes sweeter, styles are vendange tardive (late harvest) and sélection de grains nobles (selected botrytized berries producing a Sauternes-style sweet wine).
Top Riesling vineyards in Alsace are labeled grand cru. Many Rieslings, especially the grand cru and designated (named) vineyard wines, age magnificently. Producers’ cellars in Alsace contain Rieslings from the 19th century that are still beautiful to drink.
In the meantime, cellar the best wines for 10 years and beyond. Enjoy less expensive Rieslings in two to three years.
Domaine Albert Boxler (Haut-Rhin), Domaine Marcel Deiss (Haut-Rhin), Domaine Weinbach (Haut-Rhin), Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (Haut-Rhin), René Muré (Haut-Rhin), Trimbach (Haut-Rhin).
In Alsace, Riesling is often paired with foie gras and lightly sauced white fish dishes. Rieslings are marked by crisp acidity, and this acidity gives them great pairing versatility. Their rich, but dry character makes a fine partner for sausages and sauerkraut, smoked fish, pâté, chicken with a creamy sauce and Thanksgiving turkey—even with cranberry jelly. —Roger Voss
95 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Brand Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace). The Sorting Table. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $85
92 René Muré 2009 Vorbourg Grand Cru Riesling (Alsace). Robert Kacher Imports. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $56
89 La Cave des Vignerons de Pfaffenheim 2009 Riesling (Alsace). Serge Doré Selections.
abv: 12.5% Price: $17
Riesling vines make up a mere 4% of Austria’s vineyards, yet the wines enjoy a greater reputation than that small percentage suggests. That’s because Riesling makes some of Austria’s greatest white wines.
Found principally in the Danube vineyards regions (Wachau, Traisental, Kremstal and Kamptal), Riesling benefits from the primary rock soils from which it gets its translucent character, stone fruit flavors and tight minerality. Rieslings typically range from 12.5% to 13.5% alcohol, although in ripe vintages they can sometimes attain 14%. With their robust acidity, all Austrian Rieslings can age. Give the best at least 10 years.
Austrian Riesling is exceptionally vineyard- specific. It demands to be planted in well-exposed vineyards where it can ripen before late autumn frosts.
“Our terraces [in the Wachau] build the perfect microclimate for Riesling,” says Franz-Josef Gritsch of the Mauritiushof winery in Spitz. “Because our grapes are riper [than German Riesling], we can afford to ferment the wines through, thus creating dry Rieslings.”
While most Austrian Riesling is dry, growers do make small quantities of sweet, botrytized beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese styles. Brave growers leave grapes on the vine to catch the frosts for eiswein, with its extraordinary balance of concentrated sweet fruit and intense acidity.
Bründlmayer (Kamptal), F.X. Pichler (Wachau), Franz Hirtzberger (Wachau), Fred Loimer (Kamptal), Prager (Wachau), Salomon Undhof (Kremstal).
The dry Austrian Rieslings pair well with Asian food, especially sushi and lightly spiced dishes. They are a great partner to salmon, tuna and more strongly flavored river or lake fish. Sweet Rieslings go with fruit desserts, or, even better, can be enjoyed on their own at the end of a meal. —R.V.
97 Franz Hirtzberger 2010 Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd (Wachau). Vin Divino. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $144
96 Bründlmayer 2010 Zöbinger Heiligenstein Erste Lage Alte Reben Reserve Riesling (Kamptal). Michael Skurnik. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.5% Price: $80
90 Winzer Krems 2010 Kremser Pfaffenberg Reserve Riesling (Kremstal). Total Wine and More.
abv: 13% Price: $25
The Pacific Northwest can rightfully claim that the entire region is prime Riesling country. Exhibit A? Taken all together, Chateau Ste. Michelle, based in Woodinville, Washington, and its sister companies comprise the largest Riesling producer in the world.
Within Washington, cool-climate AVAs (notably the Yakima Valley) and northernmost vineyards (notably Evergreen) consistently produce especially fine Rieslings. However, in a very cool year such as 2011, Riesling from warmer sites in the Horse Heaven Hills (notably the Wallula Vineyard) may outperform them.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Chehalem Mountain and Ribbon Ridge AVAs arguably show the best touch with the grape. But almost anywhere on the cool west side of the state, there’s potential to make delicate, elegant dry and off-dry Rieslings.
There are subtle stylistic differences throughout the region, but you may always expect to find bracing natural acids, fresh citrus and stone fruit aromas, bright flavors and an underlying streak of mineral.
“The main characteristics are peach, stone fruit and apricot from the warmer sites, citrus, mandarin and minerality from the cooler sites,” says Wendy Stuckey, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Riesling specialist, who arrived from Australia in 2007. “Washington acidity is what I call ‘mouthwatering acidity.’ It gives the wines a purity and liveliness on the palate that is excellent for aging potential.”
In Oregon, Chehalem Winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry notes that “Riesling responds to site, canopy, viticulture and crop load much the same as Pinot Noir.” Flavors are tart and racy, with citrus and wet stone highlights.
WASHINGTON: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Dunham, Efest , Gamache, J.Bookwalter, Long Shadows, O•S, Pacific Rim.
OREGON: Anam Cara, Chehalem, Daedalus, David Hill, Elk Cove, Lemelson, Penner-Ash, Ponzi, Trisaetum.
Riesling comes in a full range of styles, from bone dry to ultrasweet, and is among the most versatile of food wines. Northwest Rieslings always have vivid acidity, which helps as well. With dry Rieslings, try fresh oysters, delicate seafood and simple poultry dishes. With off-dry Rieslings, spicy noodle dishes and other Pan-Asian cuisine will pair beautifully. —Paul Gregutt
90 Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2010 Riesling (Columbia Valley). Best Buy.
abv: 12% Price: $12
90 Milbrandt Vineyards 2010 Traditions Riesling (Columbia Valley). Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $13
90 Willamette Valley Vineyards 2010 Riesling (Willamette Valley). Best Buy.
abv: 9% Price: $12
FINGER LAKES, NEW YORK
“Bone-dry, steely, laserlike expressions; classically proportioned off-dry styles; and more esoteric, but beautiful and naturally made wines—the Finger Lakes region is truly the melting pot of Riesling styles,” says Thomas Pastuszak, sommelier and wine director for Colicchio & Sons restaurant in New York City.
This is because of “the myriad of soil types we have within a stone’s throw of one another,” says Steve Shaw of Shaw Vineyard. He cites the “very wide variety of microclimates from lake to lake, vineyard to vineyard,” and the warm summer days and cool conditions at night, which help maintain acidity and balance. “The winemakers really can choose how they want their Riesling to taste as a finished wine,” adds Shaw.
Anthony Road, Bloomer Creek, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer, Heron Hill, Ravines, Red Newt, Shaw Vineyard, Sheldrake Point.
From stark and minerally dry wines to unctuously sweet ice wines, brisk acidity and focused fruit flavors make Finger Lakes Riesling a perfect companion to a wide array of foods. From locally produced goat cheese and charcuterie to the spicy, pungent and flavorful Thai and South Indian dishes that are often difficult to pair with wine, the area’s distinctive, versatile Rieslings are up to the challenge. —Anna Lee C. Iijima
90 Bloomer Creek 2010 Tanzen Dame Morehouse Road Vineyard 2nd Harvest VS Dry Riesling (Finger Lakes).
abv: 12% Price: $34
90 Red Newt Cellars 2009 David Farms Vineyard Riesling (Finger Lakes).
abv: 11.9% Price: $20
89 Heron Hill 2008 Late Harvest Riesling (Finger Lakes).
abv: 9% Price: $35/375 ml
Given that Riesling is traditionally considered a cool-climate grape, it might be somewhat surprising to learn that Australian versions can be so successful. First, it should be noted that the best Australian Rieslings do come from relatively cool climates: ocean-cooled Tasmania, parts of Western Australia and the elevation-cooled Clare and Eden Valleys.
Close to 99% of Australian Riesling is completely dry, but there are a few producers—especially in Tasmania—experimenting with retaining some residual sugar to balance the often crisp acids. On the mainland, many Rieslings are picked relatively early to maintain high levels of acidity. The result is an emphasis on citrus flavors and a tart, sometimes hard, edge of acidity. In its youth, lime sherbet and lemon-lime notes fire briskly across the palate in a straight line from start to finish.
With bottle age, Australian Rieslings acquire honey and toast accents that can sometimes fool tasters into thinking that the wine was aged in oak. Orange marmalade notes emerge, and the palate broadens out slightly while still retaining a crisp line.
Frankland Estate (Western Australia), Frogmore Creek (Tasmania), Grosset (Clare Valley), Jacob’s Creek (Steingarten; Barossa), Jim Barry (Clare Valley), Kilikanoon (Clare Valley), Leeuwin Estate (Margaret River), Penfolds (Bin 51; Eden Valley), Pewsey Vale (Eden Valley), Poonawatta (Barossa), Pikes (Clare Valley), Tamar Ridge (Tasmania), Wakefield Estate (Clare Valley).
South Australians love their Rieslings paired with oysters from Coffin Bay, but the crisp nature of the wine complements virtually any shellfish. Aged examples can partner slightly richer dishes, such as salmon or poultry. —J.C.
93 Pewsey Vale 2005 The Contours Museum Reserve (Eden Valley). Negociants USA, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $28
91 Penfolds 2010 Bin 51 Riesling (Eden Valley). Treasury Wine Estates. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $20
91 Wakefield Estate 2011 Riesling (Clare Valley). American Wine Distributors. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $17
New Zealand has great potential for Riesling, much of it yet to be realized. So much emphasis has been placed on Sauvignon Blanc that progress on other white varieties has relied heavily on the pioneering and proselytizing work of just a handful of producers. In addition, none of these wineries specialize exclusively in Riesling, meaning it’s rarely top of mind.
Another issue that’s dogged Riesling in New Zealand is the question of style. It’s often been difficult to determine from the bottle whether the wine inside will be dry, off-dry or sweet. In response, several producers have adopted the International Riesling Foundation’s Riesling Taste Profile scale, which describes Riesling style in four ways: Dry, Medium-Dry, Medium-Sweet and Sweet. If used, the scale will be found on the back label.
The country’s generally cool climate is well suited to Riesling, especially in parts of the South Island like Central Otago and Waipara. Of all the wine regions, Marlborough has the most Riesling acreage, and those wines can be good and often represent decent value.
Carrick (Central Otago), Craggy Range (Martinborough), Dry River (Martinborough), Felton Road (Central Otago), Forrest (Marlborough), Framingham (Marlborough), Mountford (Waipara), Neudorf (Nelson), Pegasus Bay (Waipara), Seifried (Nelson), Spy Valley (Marlborough), Villa Maria (Marlborough).
FOOD PAIRINGS As with German offerings, successful pairings will depend on the wine style, from bone-dry to dessert-sweet. New Zealand’s crystalline fruit quality, combined with modest amounts of residual sugar, pairs beautifully with mildly sweetspicy Asian dishes. —J.C.
91 Neudorf 2010 Moutere Riesling (Nelson). The Country Vintner.
abv: 10% Price: $27
90 Felton Road 2010 Bannockburn Riesling (Central Otago). Wilson Daniels Ltd.
abv: 9% Price: $32
90 Forrest 2010 The Doctors’ Riesling (Marlborough). American Wine Distributors. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 8.5% Price: $17