Riesling, more than perhaps any other white wine, is incredibly versatile. It’s a wine capable of being everything from bone dry, tart, and crisp to sweet, tropical, and floral.
With an unfortunate reputation for being sweet, cheap, and syrupy, Riesling hasn’t had its fair shake. In truth, it can make some of the finest, most age-worthy white wines. In addition, it is also one of the most approachable food pairing wines there is.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into Riesling, its growing regions, some labeling terms, tasting notes, and of course, plenty of food pairings.
Interested in learning about other wine varieties? Consider reading our guides on Picpoul de Pinet, Nebbiolo, or Albariño Wine.
Characteristics of Riesling
Riesling is a white wine that originated in the Rhine region of Germany, though it is cultivated around the world. Its success is due to its ability to grow in cool and moderate climates, each producing a unique style of wine.
Riesling is made at every sweetness level, from bone dry to dessert wine sweet. Its high acidity and floral qualities make for a wine equally suitable for cellaring or drinking young.
Being a floral white wine, Riesling is almost never aged in oak. Instead, it is typically aged in stainless steel, preserving the wine’s natural lightness and crisp flavor. That said, many Rieslings are capable of bottle aging, allowing flavors of nut and honey to develop in bottle.
Riesling is a white wine made at all sweetness levels. It has a naturally high acidity with a light body and low alcohol, usually around 11% ABV.
As mentioned above, Riesling can grow successfully in many different parts of the world, with each region making unique examples of this fruity and floral wine.
Generally, cool climate Riesling – such as Eden Valley, Australia- makes for more crisp, tart, green-fruited wines. While moderate climates – such as Alsace, France – make for more ripe, fuller wines with tropical and stonefruit flavors.
When enjoyed young, Riesling tends to be snappy, structured, and zesty. However, after some bottle aging, those flavors begin to soften and are complemented by flavors of honey and dried stonefruit.
Notable Growing Regions for Riesling
One of the exciting things about Riesling is that it can be enjoyed all over the world, with each region producing entirely unique versions of this wine.
Here are some of Riesling’s most notable growing regions.
Germany is where the first Riesling grapes were planted, and it remains to date the biggest and most notable producer of this wine. Riesling is made all across Germany, with each region producing its wines in a specific style. Germany’s three biggest regions for producing Riesling are Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz.
- In Mosel, these wines tend to be light to medium in body, with sweetness ranging from bone dry to medium sweet. Wines here tend to be floral, crisp, low in alcohol, and possess a signature petrol flavor.
- Rheingau makes a drier style of Riesling that is fuller in body with less acidity. Flavors include stonefruit, tropical fruit, and lime zest.
- Pfalz, one of Germany’s warmest and driest growing regions, produces Riesling with flavors of orchard fruit and subtle spice.
Located just across Germany’s southwest border is where all of France’s Riesling is made. Not surprisingly, this region shares many of Germany’s signature grapes, including Gewürtztraminer.
Alsatian Riesling has a flavor and structure similar to Germany, though its climate is slightly warmer and dryer. This makes for wines with higher alcohol content and a more creamy mouthfeel. Sweetness ranges from dry to off-dry, though some sweeter styles exist.
Eden Valley & Clare Valley, Australia
Riesling has found much success in South Australia’s Eden Valley and Clare Valley, despite its warmer climate. Dramatic temperature fluctuations at night help preserve the grape’s natural acidity and make for zesty, crispy wines.
Flavors range from lime and lemon zest to white flowers, orange blossoms, and apricot. The warmer climate makes for Riesling with higher alcohol content and a more oily mouthfeel.
Oregon & Washington, United States
Riesling has shown promise in Washington and Oregon since being introduced in the 19th century by German winemakers. Currently, Washington is the United State’s largest producer of Riesling, though Oregon is right up there in quality.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley makes for a cooler climate Riesling with naturally high acidity and flavors of honeydew, lime zest, green apple, and ginger.
Though much warmer than Oregon, Washington’s Columbia Valley is offset with cold nights, similar to Australia. This enables the grapes to hold onto their acidity while making for Riesling with higher alcohol content. Riesling from Washington can be expected to have flavors of peach, pear, grapefruit, and apricot.
A Work on Germany’s Labeling Terms
Every country has its own quirks when it comes to wine labels. In Germany, wines are labeled based on the vineyard’s quality and sweetness level in the wine.
Here’s a quick breakdown of Germany’s wine labeling terms:
- Landwein: Also known as “vin de pays,” this refers to wines made in a specific region of Germany but with less strict regulations than higher quality German wines.
- Trocken: Dry wine.
- Halbtrocken: Wine with some sweetness.
- Qualitätswein: Wines made in 1 of 13 classified regions that adhere to strict quality and production regulations.
- Prädikatswein: Wines made from a single region with a higher sugar requirement. Below are the six categories for sweetness in a wine labeled as Prädikatswein, from least sweet to sweetest.
- Kabinett: Lightest and most delicate of sweetness. Flavors of green fruit, lime, and floral.
- Spätlese: Late harvest wines with more concentrated and riper fruit flavors.
- Auslese: Selected harvest grapes made from carefully selected extra-ripe bunches. Flavors of stonefruit, tropical fruit, and dried fruit. This is the first wine with a detectable sweetness.
- Beerenauslese: Made from grapes infected with botrytis, or “noble rot,” when the fungus adheres to ripened grapes. The resulting wine is sweet with flavors of fresh stone fruit, dried fruit, and honey.
- Eiswein: Made when the grapes are frozen on the vine, thereby concentrating the sugars. Once pressed, the resulting wine is viscous and tastes deliciously sweet with a distinct acidity.
- Trockenbeerenauslese: Made from grapes several infected with noble rot, resulting in a wine that’s incredibly sweet with flavors of caramel, honey, and candied fruit.
Riesling Food Pairings
Riesling is a perfect choice for a food pairing wine thanks to its naturally high acidity, low alcohol, and varying sweetness levels. Depending on the style you’re drinking, Riesling goes well with everything from seafood to salad, spicy cuisines, and dessert!
When opting for a dry Riesling, stick to lightly seasoned dishes, lean proteins, and seafood, as those will help showcase the wine’s vibrant acidity. Off-dry or semi-sweet Riesling is ideal for pairing with spicy dishes such as Thai or Indian food since the subtle sweetness will help round out the heat of the dish. Consider trying it with our Thai Curry with Scallops and String Beans or Spicy Ramen Noodles.
As for dessert Riesling, it’s best paired with desserts that showcase the citrusy flavor of the wine. Lemon cream pies, whipped cream with fresh fruit, and meringue cookies are some possible pairings.
You’ll want to avoid hearty proteins such as roasted meats or barbecue, as they will overpower the wine. Vinaigrettes are also notoriously tricky to pair with, as they can make the wine taste bitter in comparison, so stick to salads with a creamy or olive-oil-based dressing.
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