Written by: Tim Edison

Updated on: August 9, 2022

A Beginner's Guide to Riesling Wine

A Beginner's Guide To Riesling Wine

Giving its best in cold climates but loving a good exposure to the sun, Riesling is among the most prestigious and elegant white grapes in the world. And Riesling wine fully preserves the excellent characteristics of the varietal.

So, welcome to the prestigious world of the refined and elegant white wines! Riesling – whose origins are German – is now considered an international vine.

It is esteemed by winemakers and wine lovers alike, for its extraordinary elegance, class, and, in particular, for its surprising ability to age in bottle or casks, improving its exceptional bouquet along the years.

In fact, Riesling is one of the few white wines, if not the only, who develop their characteristics in time.

The best Riesling wine, thanks to its strong acidity and to a considerable amount of antioxidants, can mature for dozens of years. Practically a record  among the whites.

For this reason, Riesling is sought after by wine enthusiasts and various producers. And although the grape gives its best in cool climates and sunny areas, it is today widespread in every wine region of the world.

A Short History

It’s not quite clear what is Riesling’s exact area of origin. Theories suggest it might have originated in the valley of the Rhine area, in Mosel or Pfalz; all three areas are in today’s Germany, which leads to the conclusion that Riesling is German.

Reliable historical evidence tells that Riesling was widespread and widely cultivated in all areas along the Rhine river as early as the fifteenth century. However, some earlier sources suggest that it was already cultivated in the ninth century by order of the sovereign Louis the German. 

But Riesling might have been cultivated in Germany since the second millennia BC; if this were confirmed to be true, Riesling would be one of the oldest grapes in the world, together with other German varieties such as Elbling, Räuschling, and Silvaner.

Recommended: Looking for cheap Riesling wine suggestions? We recommend our favorite affordable options.

The importance of Riesling has been blurred for years by other varieties obtained through hybridization. This is the case of Müller Thurgau, a grape variety whose notoriety encouraged winemakers to give up on Riesling almost completely and replace it with this variety.

By the 1980s, Riesling became an almost unknown variety that covered no more than 19% of the vineyards in Germany.

In the 90s, its notoriety started to improve and the harsh winters of the decade exalted the resistance of Riesling compared to the “new” varieties. The productive efforts to improve the quality of Riesling wines contributed to the affirmation of this fine white grape.

Riesling is a vine that tends to produce an abundant crop and, surprisingly, it maintains high levels of acidity when it reaches full maturity. This contributed to the affirmation of Riesling’s reputation. The excellent results obtained by winemakers in Mosel region represented the advent of this wine.

The vine has been crossed pollinated with other varieties to obtain new vines. Noteworthy is Incrocio Manzoni, resulted from the crossing of Riesling and Pinot Blanc and widespread in the northeast of Italy.

Riesling Grapes

riesling wine

Riesling is a variety that has an excellent cold resistance, and that’s the reason why it is mostly grown in cold climate wine areas.

But resistance to cold doesn’t mean that the grapes don’t need appropriate care and conditions to give the best yields. Yet, the quality of the grapes is not affected by the vine’s tendency to produce abundant yields.

The vine is resistant to harsh winter frosts and it has a late ripening. In fact, the harvest is usually carried out between middle October and the beginning of November.

The grapes are small and grow in rather compact bunches, characteristic that makes Riesling very sensitive to molds. And that’s one of the reasons why in warm climates the vine doesn’t give the best of itself. In warm climates, Riesling ripens faster and this often affects the quality of the wines, which are flatter and expose less elegant aromas.

In cool climate areas, where the grapes have a slow ripening, Riesling develops elegant aromas and intense flavors, while maintaining its high level of acidity.

And that’s one of the reasons why Germany produces some of the best Riesling wines in the world. It is even believed that the vine manages to give its best on the steep slopes of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, where sunlight caresses the grapes most of the day. However, Riesling is now widespread in almost all wine countries.

There should be made a clear distinction between Riesling and Italian Riesling, which is a completely different variety. In fact, in Italy, Riesling is called Riesling Renano (Rhine Riesling) while what they call Riesling Italico is a different grape variety.

Riesling Characteristics

For beginners and connoisseurs alike, Riesling wine represents the exaltation of the enology. Almost all Riesling wines are bottled immediately after fermentation, and very rare cases involve maturation in a barrel. Despite this, Riesling develops its character over the time, and aging on a shelf defines its flavors and aromas.

Wines produced with the Riesling variety are quite varied. From dry to sweet, there is a wide range of varieties to choose from. But what is awesome about the sweet ones is their impressive balance maintained by the high acidity of the grapes. However, the tendency of most winemakers is to produce dry Rieslings.

The alcohol content is generally quite low, around 7° to 9°. Few Rieslings reach 12°, which make this wine pleasant to drink even in larger quantities.

What is peculiar about this wine is its tendency to mature in the bottle despite its low alcohol concentration. In fact, most white wines with similar alcohol content just go bad or turn into vinegar.

So, what preserves this wine? It's acidity! 

Thanks to this characteristic, Riesling wine can mature in the bottle for decades, improving its organoleptic qualities. That’s why only a few Rieslings don’t exceed at least three years of aging.

Visual Analysis

From a visual point of view, Rieslings come in a wide palette, depending on the type of wine in the bottle. Young dry Rieslings bottled immediately after fermentation – most of the affordable Rieslings available on the market – have a greenish-yellow shade and low viscosity.

Some young dry wines that have been aged in barrels for a few months to a year may have a straw yellow color.

Vintage dry Rieslings, aged either in the bottle or in barrels, have characteristic straw yellow and golden hues. Sweet Rieslings develop golden yellow shades that vary to intense amber tones.

Wine Aromas

Riesling wine is extremely interesting from an olfactory point of view. Non-vintage varieties develop aromas similar to many other white wines, which make for an interesting wine flight between a non-vintage Riesling and a Pinot Blanc, for example.

However, these common characteristics don’t make Riesling less interesting from an aromatic point of view. Young wines made from unripe grapes develop rather “sour” fruity aromas of green apple, citrus, lime, and lemon, as well as flowery aromas of jasmine, chamomile, wisteria, and hawthorn.

Wine produced in certain areas, such as those from Mosel, also acquire mineral notes conferred by the soil, enriching the aromatic notes mentioned above.

The same aromas develop in young wines made from grapes grown in a cool climate region.

Rieslings produced with ripe grapes, or those made from grapes grown in warm climate areas, have rounder and less harsh aromas of grapefruit, peach, apricot, pear, apple, and exotic fruits. Sweet Rieslings have more strong aromas of peach and apricot that dry ones, in which the aromas of grapefruit and apple prevail.

Refining periods allow the development of the organoleptic properties and vintage Riesling wines impress with aromas of aromatic butter, honey, and honeybee wax. These elegant aromas, as strange as they might seem, are very pleasing and give style to this beverage.

Some sweet Riesling wines, and in particular those made from grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea or other noble molds, develop elegant spicy aromas of cinnamon, anise, and ginger. Aromas of moss, dried fruit, candied apricot, walnut, almond, and fruit jam are also common in vintage sweet Rieslings.

In vintage and non-vintage wines grown in cool climate regions also develop slight aromas of sage, thyme, green tea, nettle, and tobacco.

As said above, it’s rare for winemakers to age Riesling in barrels, but when this happens, the wine also develops characteristic “barrel” aromas of vanilla, chocolate, and toasted wood.

Riesling Wine Flavors

Considering the rich variety of wines made from Riesling grapes, the gustatory qualities of these wines are just as rich.

In dry wines, acidity is the predominant gustatory character, and some wines develop an interesting minerality, depending on the terroir. These are the main characteristics of German Mosel Riesling, whose taste is often defined as metallic.

But this doesn’t mean the wine isn’t refined. Despite its strength, this acidity is pleasant and the wine is extremely balanced, refreshing the palate without disturbing the taste buds in any way. This acidity is also an essential factor that defines the balance of sweet Rieslings from Germany, such as Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese.

Thanks to the low alcoholic content, that is rarely higher than 12°, Riesling wine expresses a tasteful elegance and an incredible balance.

Riesling Wine and Food Pairings

riesling wine

Riesling is a versatile wine that is easy to pair with a wide range of foods. Some of the freshest sparkling versions of Riesling make an excellent aperitif and pair perfectly with sea finger foods, in particular with mollusks and especially with scallops.

Other seafood and shellfish also pair well with dry Riesling wine, thanks to the mineral notes of the beverage. These notes blend perfectly with the iodized flavor of fish, making it a perfect match for raw fish and sushi.

This may explain why Riesling is one of the most popular wines in Japan, a country renowned for its cuisine and culinary culture.

Served with the main course, Riesling wine makes a harmonious match with poultry and white meats in general. Goat's cheese and Riesling is another winning combination, while similar cheeses also benefit from this pairing.

Sweet Riesling pairs wonderfully with fruit-based desserts, such as citrus or lemon cake. Late harvest Rieslings and some vintage varieties pair well with sponge cakes and dry sweets such as biscuits and cookies.

The French Riesling d’Alsace is one of the most popular white wines in the world that exalts all flavors and characteristics of the French cuisine. From the Alsatian choucroute to matelote, palette de porc fumée, and other traditional French dishes, this wine works wonders when paired with these foods.

This wine can also be paired with the French brown soup or the shrimp cocktail, with seafood and, in particular, with lobster.

Dry Rieslings, which are crisper and more acidic are excellent with rich sauces. They cut through the richness really well. A particularly good pairing for a dry Riesling is something like shrimp scampi, which has a garlic and butter sauce.

When it comes to the Italian cuisine, there are countless combinations to consider. Riesling is the perfect wine for the Italian first courses, such as tagliolini al limone or risotto with figs. Octopus and potato salads, croutons, and bruschetta with truffle cream also pair wonderfully with Riesling.

The wine is also easy to pair with fish main courses, such as grilled swordfish, tuna or salmon. Raw prawns and scampi served with Riesling are another popular pairing, while roasted lobster or cod also have their flavors exalted by this elegant beverage.

Besides desserts, vintage and sweet Riesling wine pairs perfectly with deer and other game meat. As for Italian cheeses, the intense and pungent flavors of Taleggio cheese pairs wonderfully with a vintage dry German Riesling.

Other foods to consider are monkfish and clams, buffalo mozzarella, and other creamy cheeses. Without a doubt, there are dozens of combinations to make with Riesling wine.

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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