The saddest thing about Riesling is that it is completely unfashionable. What many people don’t know about Riesling is that it is one of the truly classic grape varieties, and makes some of the world’s most elegant and aromatic white wines with an extraordinary balance of sweetness and acidity. It can be made in a wide range of styles, the best of which are among the most expressive, age worthy, and elegant in the world. While a large quantity of Riesling is vinified as sweet wine, a common misconception is that all Rieslings are sweet wines. In fact, Rieslings fall anywhere on the spectrum, from crisp and dry to gooey sweetness and everything in between. Alcohol levels also vary quite a bit, from less than 8% by volume in Germany to 14% and above in some New World locations. At its best, it has great potential for aging.
Riesling is not particularly hard to grow. It is a medium to high yielding grape, and fares well in cooler climates. It is susceptible to grey rot, the bad form of botrytis bunch rot, and prefers milder climates with long growing seasons.
The quality of Riesling wine depends almost entirely on the quality of the grapes. Emphasis is therefore placed on cultivating good grapes, rather than the sort of post-harvest winemaker fiddling typical with grapes like Chardonnay. Winemakers rarely vinify Riesling grapes in oak. Instead, by using stainless steel containers, they can ensure that the wine retains the grapes’ primary fruit qualities rather than the character of a wooden vessel.
The characteristic flavors of Riesling include crisp apple in the Mosel, apricot, peach and spice in the Pfalz, lime in Claire and Eden Valleys, and citrus, honey, flowers, spice, and marzipan all over. Curiously pleasant aromas of gasoline and kerosene can be found in wines that have seen some time in the bottle.
Germany produces much of the world’s best Riesling, and the best of these come from the steeply sloped banks of the Mosel river. The climate there is cool, and the slate soil poor but well-drained. These conditions result in hearty, deeply rooted vines and grapes with high levels of acidity. The challenges inherent in this environment also necessitate hand-harvesting and close involvement of the winemakers in all stages of the grapes’ development. Mosel wines are a bit more subtle and crisp than those from regions like the Pfalz. Fine German Riesling is also made along the Rhine and in the Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz regions.
Alsace is home to some great Rieslings that are, like their German counterparts, enticingly perfumed, but tend to be bone dry with a higher alcohol content. Austria is also a key producer of dry Riesling, most of which comes from the Wachau region. Until Chardonnay caught up in 1990, Riesling was the most widely planted white wine grape in Australia. The cool Claire and Eden Valleys offer the best conditions for Riesling in Australia. Canada makes some high-quality Riesling icewine.