The World’s Most Underappreciated Wine
If you were asked what the world’s most expensive age-worthy white wine is, most of you would think White Burgundy, and you would be mostly correct. Did you know, however, that German Riesling can easily rival and sometimes outperform white Burgundy in both ageablility and expense? Sommeliers and wine professionals love Riesling because it produces complex, food-friendly wines that beautifully reflect their terroir. Regrettably, in the United States, many consumers overlook this exquisite wine, assuming it to be overly sweet and, therefore, inferior. During the 1960s and 1970s, super-sweet Riesling blends were extremely popular in the United States. But as the consumer’s palate evolved, the reputation of Riesling did not. Riesling got a bad rap back then, and it has unfortunately stuck. In truth, Riesling can be produced in a myriad of styles, from bone-dry to lusciously sweet. Let’s take a deeper look at this magnificently versatile and delightful wine and see if I can persuade you to give Riesling another try.
Riesling is resistant to cold temperatures, so it can stay on the vine longer and develop more intense aromas and flavors without losing its natural acidity. What makes Riesling genuinely exceptional is its ability to provide winemakers with a multitude of options both in the vineyard and in the winery, enabling them to create an array of extraordinary wine styles from the very same vineyard. Grapes are harvested several times a season to control the balance of sweetness and acidity. If grapes are left on the vine, they can develop Botrytis, a gray fungus known as ‘noble rot.’ This fungus removes water from the grapes, which increases the sugar concentration and helps produce sweet dessert wines. Sugars can also be concentrated by leaving the grapes to freeze in the vineyard, offering another method for winemakers to craft truly magnificent dessert wines.
Much like Pinot Noir, Riesling has an uncanny ability to reflect the terroir where it was grown. That may be why so many wine geeks adore this grape. When
you compare the wines side by side, you will start to distinguish the unique styles and taste characteristics of the various regions where it is grown. Riesling’s spiritual homeland is unquestionably Germany, where it accounts for nearly 25% of all planted grapes. Germany produces around 40% of the world’s Riesling. It is grown in various styles in all 13 German wine regions. Unsurprisingly, everything you need to know about a German wine can be found on the label. Unfortunately, you may need a master’s degree to decipher it. Don’t worry if German wine labels seem intimidating and confusing to you; we have created a simple chart of the terms on the label and their significance for the wine inside the bottle.
Riesling in Germany typically has a light to medium body, lower alcohol content, remarkable acidity, and an abundance of aromatic stone fruit and citrus flavors. There are five primary regions in Germany that produce the best Riesling. The cool, sunny summers and mild winters make the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region an ideal area for Riesling.
“ My great-grandfather Konstantin Frank was the first to pioneer Riesling here in the eastern United States with our first planting in 1958. Since then, our Riesling program has increased to 8 different styles from traditional method sparkling, single-vineyard expressions to botrytis dessert styles. We love the versatility of this grape, and it works so well in our cool climate here in the Finger Lakes. Riesling is one of the most transparent grape varieties and shines with flavors of lime, mineral and stone fruit when it’s grown on our glacial soils. We are proud to be a pioneering producer of Riesling in America’s premier cool climate AVA of the Finger Lakes!” Meagan Frank Vice President
The wines here are highly aromatic, with mineral-rich flavors and bright citrus acidity. Grapes in the Nahe region are grown on steep slopes by the Nahe River. The wines they produce are slightly riper than those from the Mosel but still have a noticeable acidity. Following the Rhine River, you will find the regions of Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz, where the warmer climate contributes to riper and fuller-bodied Rieslings with distinctive aromas and flavors of ripe peach.
On the other side of the Rhine basin lies Alsace, France, equally renowned for its high-quality Riesling wines. Alsace’s high-altitude vineyards boast a remarkable variety of geological soils that help the late-ripening grape fully develop. Alsace’s Rieslings have a less floral nose than German Rieslings. They are known for being aromatic and full-bodied, with moderate alcohol and high acidity. They typically have citrus and stone fruit flavors, often with a stony finish.
In Austria, Riesling represents 16% of grapes planted; most are vinified to produce lean, dry, low alcohol, minerally wines. The Grand Cru vineyards along the Mosel River in the Wachau and its neighboring Kamptal and Kremstal regions can produce elegant, complex wines that can age well. Elsewhere in Europe, Riesling is grown in Northern Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Moravia.
The New World has quickly embraced this versatile grape to make distinct wines that reflect the specific growing conditions of each region. Australia’s Eden Valley and Clare Valley are known for producing exceptional Riesling wines that age well. Over time, the aromas of lime, lemon, and grapefruit in these wines transform into toast, honey, and petrol, creating a unique style. The wines are unoaked, dry, or off-dry with very high acidity.
In North America, Riesling is grown in several places, including Canada, Washington State, Oregon, California, Michigan, Colorado, New York, and Virginia. American winemakers strive to create dry and off-dry Rieslings that retain their vital acidity. Washington State is the biggest producer of Riesling in North America. The Columbia Valley AVA has the perfect climate for making wines with intense aromas and the right level of acidity. The Finger Lakes AVA in New York is well-known for its delicious dry Rieslings and captivating Ice Wine, thanks to the deep glacial lakes that retain heat until November, allowing for a longer growing season. When asked why Riesling performs so well in the Finger Lakes, Meagan Frank replied “My great-grandfather Konstantin Frank was the first to pioneer Riesling here in the eastern United States with our first planting in 1958. Since then, our Riesling program has increased to 8 different styles from traditional method sparkling, single-vineyard expressions to botrytis dessert styles. We love the versatility of this grape, and it works so well in our cool climate here in the Finger Lakes. Riesling is one of the most transparent grape varieties and shines with flavors of lime, mineral and stone fruit when it’s grown on our glacial soils. We are proud to be a pioneering producer of Riesling in America’s premier cool climate AVA of the Finger Lakes!” Similarly, Lake Ontario on the Niagara Peninsula aids in extending the growing season there to produce both dry and sweet Rieslings.
Sommeliers everywhere love Riesling because it is one of the most food-friendly varieties. Riesling is an incredibly versatile grape that can be transformed into a wide array of wine styles. However, the one unchanging characteristic that sets Riesling apart is its remarkable acidity, making it ideal for pairing with food. Drier-style Rieslings pair perfectly with fresh seafood and shellfish, as well as various cheeses and meats and would be a perfect accompaniment to a cheese and charcuterie board. Sweeter varieties stand up well to spice and can easily stand up to lemongrass chicken, acidic sauces like Beurre Blanc or strong Indian and spicy Asian dishes. Super sweet and unctuous dessert wines can pair well with strong blue cheese or foie gras but avoid trying to pair Riesling with sweet chocolate desserts as they may overpower the wine.
From bone-dry to unctuously sweet, Riesling produces some of the world’s most age-worthy and food-friendly white wines. While Riesling is rarely blended, the grape’s ability to be nurtured and transformed into so many different styles of wine is truly remarkable. Whether still or sparkling, there is genuinely a Riesling for every palate. No more excuses, it is time to give Riesling another try. I promise, you won’t be sorry.
A Guide to German Wines and Labeling Terms
German wine styles from least ripe to ripest:
Kabinett is the lightest and most delicate style of Riesling and is usually quite dry and low in alcohol.
Spätlese is made from grapes picked later in the season and is more concentrated with more body and alcohol.
Auslese is made from specially selected bunches of very ripe grapes. This wine can be dry or sweet and is richer and riper in style.
Beerenauslese is a dessert wine made from individually selected overripe grapes, often affected by Botrytis.
Trockenbeerenauslese is a relatively rare complex dessert wine made using grapes that have been fully affected by Botrytis.
Eiswein is made with grapes left on the vine to freeze before being made into wine. It can only be made in years when the temperatures are cold enough to freeze the ripened grapes. With today’s weather patterns, Eiswein is becoming more and more challenging to make.
Labeling terms that indicate levels of sweetness:
“Grosses Gewächs” on the label means the wine has been certified as dry and comes from one of the best producers and one of the best sites.
“Trocken” means dry in German and indicates a dry wine with less than 9 grams/liter of residual sugar.
“Halbtrocken” or “Feinherb” indicates a wine with 9 to 15 grams/liter of residual sugar. But don’t be discouraged because the grape’s characteristic high acidity will balance the sugar, resulting in a wine that will taste quite dry.