Riesling Revealed: A Comprehensive Guide to this Iconic Grape Variety
Riesling is one of the finest white wines produced in the world: it is a particular, fine, delicate, fragrant wine, with an intriguing charm, a notable acidity, but a few degrees. Not infrequently there are also bottles of Riesling on the market with an alcohol content of 7-9 degrees, especially among Moselle wines (German wines).
Among fans, it may be the most wanted, the most exclusive, and the most explosive because of its unique organoleptic qualities, starting with the typical hydrocarbon smells.
Where Riesling was born
Its chosen homeland is Germany, where the vine would have been born according to legend, and the areas of main interest all wind along the course of the Rhine or the Moselle rivers. We remember the “crus” of Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Nahe, and Pfalz.
If we cross the border, we will savor the other side of Riesling, the Alsatian, which is more full-bodied, fruity, and alcoholic.
Riesling is a unique wine because, in addition to having a light body, it has different levels of sweetness. This is done to balance out the strong acidity of the wine.
What are the different styles of Riesling?
Riesling comes in a wide range of styles, from the dry, which makes a great aperitif, to the completely dried-out clusters of Trockenbeerenauslese, where sweetness becomes poetry.
Now, thanks to global warming, it is true that winemakers often produce purer and completely sugar-free wines, but we are only at the beginning of the Riesling revolution.
The classification is not immediately simple; the names are in German or French, so now let’s see in more detail how Rieslings are called based on their sweetness.
Let’s start with German wines. When a Riesling is “trocken,” it means that it is very dry, with no sugar residue.
Spätlese denotes a late harvest and a more substantial structure; they can be dry or have a hint of sugar content; they are sweet but not excessively so.
Riesling Auslese, intense wines that age and whose clusters may have been attacked by noble rot, opens the sweetest sweet wines.
Molds are one step up, and Beerenauslese Rieslings are made from clusters that have definitely been affected by Botrytis cinerea.
Let’s continue with the finest, talking about the Eiswein, the ice wines, whose clusters also freeze during the cold. The sugar concentration increases considerably.
And we end up with the sweetest and most amazing wine, the Trockenbeerenauslese, more unique than rare wines, whose clusters undergo extreme drying—practically dry raisins are squeezed—but the nectar that is born is fabulous, like the cost of these bottles.
Let’s go to France.
If we are in France, we have the first level of sweetness with the classic late harvest (the late harvest that is also practiced in Italy) and then the grand finale: the wines born from Botrytis cinerea. The noble rot sticks to the clusters and dries them out.
This makes the sugar in the berries increase by a factor of ten. Grapes are then harvested over several harvests, sometimes even one by one. a painstaking work that takes the name “Sélection de Grains Nobles.” It is not exclusive to Riesling; however, Gewurztraminer in Alsace can also be a Sélection de Grains Nobles.
But let’s go back to our beloved wine, which, thanks to this peculiarity and the thousand shades of sweetness it can offer, is not only multifaceted and glowing but also one of the most flexible wines when it comes to food-wine pairing.
A touch of sweetness will help you with difficult combinations of fish, cheeses, sweet and sour dishes, or dishes with citrus fruits and sauces that need a bite. It is not without reason that it is one of the best wines to pair with spicy Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. A sweet touch and a low amount of alcohol also help with very spicy dishes.
But let’s get to the organoleptic characteristics of Riesling. How can we recognize it?
The nose is not opulent like a Gewurztraminer but fine, with hints of peach, citrus, hydrocarbons, other mineral tones, a few aromatic herbs, and more stone tones. The presence of hydrocarbons like kerosene and gasoline seems odd and is not always taken for granted, but it adds a very intriguing touch. Don’t expect to smell a can of diesel; every scent is a sigh in Riesling, and everything is set to finesse.
What does Riesling taste like?
Riesling is a delicate wine that is aged in large barrels or exhausted barriques; you will never find a Riesling that tastes of vanilla and butter, and if you did, it would be a disaster; its delicate charm would be stifled. Refine in large barrels, which know how to sculpt flavor and acidity without adding any perfume. It’s not like Chardonnay, which can take on a thousand different personalities depending on the winemaker. Riesling has only one and does not tolerate even a trace of makeup; it is like a rose, graceful and sensitive.
However, it is a wine that has a great personality, is savory, has many flavors of stone and graphite, an intriguing acidity, and a lot of elegance. You will eventually find your favorite Riesling, from dry to sweet and mellow—true oenological pearls. However, keep in mind that structure and alcohol content are always very low, so expect fleshy and vertical wines rather than muscular ones.
That’s all; we are done, but we want to give you some advice. Be patient with Riesling. It is the most difficult wine to drink right away, and you need to train your taste buds to enjoy it.
Perhaps the first few times it is unsettling to taste an almost oily Riesling full of strange scents, but then little by little you will learn and unravel the skein.
In the meantime, you can start with South Tyrolean Rieslings, which are very mineral and clean but easily available, and then make comparisons with the German ones.
How long can Riesling be aged?
As a sommelier, I am frequently asked by wine enthusiasts, how much can “he” live.
He is virtually immortal. Or rather, it is the wine that comes closest to this condition, leaving aside fortified wines, of course.
I can attest that Riesling is one of the most age-worthy white grape types. The best specimens of Riesling are grown on steep hillsides around the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany. These wines can last for decades and develop interesting flavors and smells as they age.
Riesling ages differently depending on many things, such as the location of the vineyard, the year, the winemaking process, and how ripe the grapes were when they were picked. Typically, Riesling wines that are ideal for aging have a high acidity level and a decent balance of sugar and alcohol. These components allow the wine to mature and age elegantly.
Riesling can develop a variety of distinct smells and flavors as it ages. Citrus and stone fruit aromas can give rise to secondary notes of honey, gasoline, and dried fruits. The acidity in Riesling allows the wine to keep its structure and harmony as well as its freshness and vitality as it ages.
It is essential to note, however, that not all Rieslings are ideal for maturing. Many Rieslings are made to be drunk young, with their fresh, vibrant fruit flavors. Whether or not to age a Riesling should depend on the quality of the wine, the year it was made, and the style the winemaker wants to achieve.
How should Riesling be served?
Riesling should be served chilled but not too cold, as this can mask its aromas and flavors. A temperature of around 45–50°F (7–10°C) is ideal for most Rieslings.
Riesling food pairings
Riesling is a special wine that goes well with dishes that are acidic, sweet and sour, spicy, or hot because of how well its sweetness and acidity go together. Extreme spiciness doesn’t go well with any wine, but the Riesling’s residual sugar makes up for a light spiciness very well.