To many, the chameleonic riesling grape is the finest white wine variety in the world. No other white grape can produce such an astonishing range of delicate yet persistent aromas and flavours or keep its freshness over so many years with such modest alcohol levels.
One of the hardiest grapes to grow, its high level of frost resistance allows riesling to thrive in the cool, continental climates of northern Europe, as well as parts of Australia and New Zealand.
Sunshine into wine. Riesling is one of the finest white varieties.
As the grapes are small, they form compact bunches on the vine, which makes riesling highly susceptible to noble rot, and the subsequent production of sweet wines. It can act as something of a lightning rod for expressing its terroir, with different regions producing often markedly varied wines. Below is a brief guide to its main guises throughout the world.
Germany | Alsace | Australia | New Zealand
- Lime juice/cordial
How do I pronounce riesling?
'Anyone fortunate enough to have drunk great German riesling knows that it can be the finest white wine variety of all. We say unequivocally that riesling and chardonnay vie for first place, because both can produce such an astonishing range of complex quality and outstanding ageing potential.'
Sebastian Payne MW
Though grown successfully elsewhere, nowhere does riesling produce such delicate, multi-faceted results as it does in Germany's great vineyards. German rieslings are subtly perfumed and can be redolent of fruits, flowers, honey, herbs and spices, as well as mineral notes from the soil where the grapes ripened.
The Mosel produces wines with an extraordinary amount of fruit, character and elegance, generally at only 7%–9% alcohol. The villages of the middle Mosel are home to the best-exposed sites, which produce delicate, racy and stylish wines that cover a wide spectrum of flavours. They range from nervy and bone dry, with beautifully scented fruits of apples, apricots, and sometimes peaches, through to the exotic flavours of the great sweet wines.
Eiswein is made from riesling grapes left to freeze on their vines.
To the south-west of the Mosel, the vineyards of Pflaz provide a touch more shelter for the vine, resulting in a dry wine with slightly more body and a lovely, spicy, exuberant character.
Where the Rhine hits the Taunus mountains it turns west, creating sunny, south-facing slopes on the north bank of the river, home to the great vineyards of the Rheingau. The wines, the majority of which are dry, can be extraordinary, both full and racy, invigorating, and long-lived. These wines are designed to be drunk with food.
German wine laws classify the quality of a wine according to the degree of sugar the crushed grapes contain with an indication appearing on the label – kabinett, spätlese, auslese etc. However, these can often serve to confuse a wine-drinker further. Members are advised to look at the sweetness code we give online and in The Society's Lists as a guide. For more information on buying German wine, see our Germany wine guide.
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For many, riesling produces Alsace's greatest wine, one that is dry and fuller in body with more rounded acidity than its German counterparts. Like German riesling however, it too develops great complexity with age, sometimes taking on a pronounced petrolly aroma. It also succumbs to noble rot to produce exceptional dessert wines, honeyed and hedonistic in aroma, with a particular affinity for baked custards like crème brûlée or lemon tart.
The focus of plantings is in the Haut-Rhin, where the higher vineyards provide ideal conditions in which the grape thrives. Often the wines follow the aromatic characteristics seen in Germany, with an appealing perfumed aroma. The often bone-dry wines are more alcoholic, coming in at at least 12%.
As with Germany, Alsace also uses some unique labelling categories, giving the consumer a further indication of what to expect; for instance, Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles. These wines may only be made from the four noble grapes: riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and muscat.
Despite its northerly latitude, Alsace is one of the driest regions in France allowing a long, slow ripening period for the vine
Vendange tardive literally means 'late harvest' and refers to grapes with higher must weights, which have been picked later than the rest of the crop. These super-ripe grapes start to dehydrate in a process known as passerillage and have a completely different character from grapes harvested at the usual time. The wines are not necessarily sweeter, but have opulent, highly complex flavours, which respond well to cellaring. With age, the wines take on gunflint, mineral notes that are enhanced by the pure fruit and crisp acidity.
Truly sweet and highly-prized, Sélection de Grains Nobles can be made only if the grapes are affected by the benevolent fungus botrytis cinerea, or noble rot. The brown, shrivelled grapes with their high concentration of sugar are harvested individually by hand, and the resulting nectar is regarded as one of the finest wines in France. Its lifespan is practically unlimited and the honeyed, mineral, luscious wines are a wonderful reward for your patience.
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Australia's heat is too intense for the floral aromatics of riesling and the variety can really only find sanctuary in Western Australia (Great Southern in particular), and in the valleys of South Australia; Eden Valley and Clare Valley. Their cooler climates result in an intense fruit aroma.
Understandably, the wines are higher in alcohol and body than those of northern Europe, but gain individual distinction for their aromas and flavours. The floral notes of Germany and Alsace are, for the most part, overtaken by tangy, limey fruit notes giving a fresh and zesty wine. The wines are dry to off-dry in style and the finest can withstand a decade or more in bottle, gaining complexity and a toasty character.
Tasmania and its southerly location provides a more ideal home for riesling and the wines are more similar to those of New Zealand in style, with intense fruit and perfumed flavours, combined with fresh acidity.
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New Zealand offers real opportunity for riesling, the cooler climate well-suited to enabling slow ripening and flavour development. The very best examples possess the intensity and weight of great Alsatian equivalents with vibrant, lifted flavours.
Marlborough, on South Island, has been having particular success: its wines have crisp, high acidity, balanced alcohol, delicate fruit aromas. Its flavours, however, tend to be riper than those found in Alsace and Germany, with peach and tangy lemon dominating. In general, the wines are lighter in body and style than those of Australia but offer beguiling fruit aromatics.
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