Riesling is Germany’s primary contribution to the wine world, and is following closely behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in versatility, popularity, and merit. In fact, with Chardonnay falling out of favor lately due to overplanting, Riesling may even overtake King Chard in reputation. Riesling has proven its diversity by displaying different flavors everywhere it is planted.
Riesling originated somewhere along the Rhine in Germany. References as early as the 15th century lead ampelographers to believe that Riesling has a very long history. They have determined that Riesling is a cross between two grapes of uncertain identities. Riesling itself is the parent of several grapes, the most well-known being Müller-Thürgau, Rieslaner, and Scheurebe. Welschriesling is unrelated to Riesling, as are several other similarly named grapes that apparently ride the coattails of Riesling’s success.
The Riesling grape’s physical delicacy makes it difficult to produce. Any crushing or squeezing of the grape before vinification can lead to bad wine. Thus the grape must endure a special vinification process that puts an emphasis on maintaining the sharp, acidic flavors of the grape.
The flavors of a Riesling wine largely depend on the place where it is grown. Germany is the source of the best Rieslings. Clean, extremely acidic, and offering a balance between fruit and mineral, German Rieslings have a long history and are known for their ageability. Even wines from low-level, inexpensive producers can age for 30 or 40 years if stored well.
The classic German Riesling, the ultimate in Riesling winemaking, can generally be found in Mosel. The bottles of Mosel Riesling are tall and thin, and the wines themselves rarely have more than 10% alcohol, and sometimes as low as 6%. High in acidity, these wines are powered by a strong citrus flavor. Other grapes are almost never blended in, in order to maintain the wine’s purity.
For those looking for less traditional, more experimental styles that are fuller-bodied and closer to American style, Rheingau and Nahe deliver the goods. While an accessible Riesling ruins the fun a bit for lovers of the wine’s famous brash flavor, it proves the grape’s diversity.
Some experimental zones in Baden and Pfalz are experimenting with new oak and other unusual techniques, and these wines have a much higher alcohol content. These wines are not as certain to be good as the classic Rieslings, but the continuing Riesling comeback in popularity means that these styles will become much more visible.
Starting out with its refined flavor of bitter fruits, Riesling changes with age and the apples or citrus take on a certain flavor. Wine drinkers have likened it to kerosene or oil, and analysis of the wine’s makeup has led to the discovery of a chemical compound that is causing the flavors. Although startling to newcomers, these flavors are appreciated by wine critics as an additional unusual factor of Riesling wine.
While the majority of these examples are dry, semi-sweet and sweet examples also exist. They are made in the same places and have similar aging potential; often, the flavors are just as intense and intriguing.
Austrian wine is quite similar to that of Germany, attaining elegance with the rich, mineral soil. These wines are higher in alcohol but, counterintuitively, do not age as well. Elsewhere in Central Europe, Riesling often has similar characteristics. Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Romania are among the European countries that offer good Riesling. Riesling is rarely found in Italy or Spain due to the warmer climate.
Riesling is also made well in Alsace. Alsace has had Riesling plantings for almost as long as Germany has, and Riesling is one of only four grapes to be allowed in Alsace Grand Cru. These wines are more fragrant, higher in alcohol, and less intense than their German counterparts due to the different climate and soil. As a rule, they do not age as well, but can still often last 15 or 20 years, depending on the vintage and producer.
Australian Riesling displays citrussy and austere characteristics. New Zealand’s Rieslings are more approachable than those of Australia, and the fruit flavors are more buoyant. New Zealand’s experiments with sweet styles have been interesting so far.
In the Americas, Riesling is also more approachable. California, the home of great Chardonnay, rarely makes dry Riesling that can challenge the Old World, and producers there have turned to sweet styles. New York, especially the Finger Lakes, is much more promising; in fact, Riesling is probably New York’s prominent white grape at this point. Washington and Canada produce some good examples; Canadian Riesling is often icewine. Icewine is a dessert wine made from frozen late-harvested grapes, famous for its esoteric, surprising flavors.
Riesling, like Pinot Noir and even Scotch, is a drink that takes a great deal of time and effort to get into. Initially strong, unfriendly, and offputting, the flavors of a great German Riesling need to be tasted several times to become appealing. But once they do, there is little that can replicate the experience. The abundance of other styles proves Riesling’s diversity for drinkers less willing to acquire the taste.