A white grape originating in Germany’s Rhineland, Riesling’s origins date back to at least the 15th century, with the first documented varietal sale taking place in 1435 when a German count bought six vines. Up until then, Riesling stayed more or less off the map (for Americans, at least), getting by as a cheap, sweet wine. But around the turn of the millennium, wine makers and consumers awoke to the possibilities of Riesling and the 2001 vintage put the wine back on the map outside of Europe. Since then, Riesling has taken on increased importance, prized for its complexity and versatility, and today ranks among the most expensive wines on the market.
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This combination of harsh, stony slate and storage of warmth in the soil, coupled with the extraordinarily long growing season, makes possible the production of complex Riesling with a delicate acidity and fruity sweetness. The lack of nutrients in this slate soil also allows the wine to take on a bit of mineral taste. All in all, Rieslings from these northern areas are characterized by a fresh green apple note, accompanied by a mineral note gleaned from their rocky soils. A famous variation of German Riesling is the production of eiswein (ice wine), a super sweet variety made from grapes frozen on the vine.
Though German production still gets top billing in the world of Riesling, many other areas of the world have the climate and soil capable of producing complex Rieslings. Perhaps most notably, Washington state and Australia’s Clare Valley have of late produced increasingly quality Riesling, but I also direct you to Snooth’s recent 10 picks of New World Riesling. Because of the terroir expressiveness of Riesling, each appellation provides a very different character, adding to the variety of flavors in the Riesling repertoire as a whole.
The characteristics of quality Riesling, reminiscent of peaches or, when young, apples, quenches the thirst and cools one off in the heat. It has a unique acidity and fruit flavor with aromas of wet stones, smoke or even petroleum (a highly prized note in aged Riesling). The lower alcohol content makes the wine more refreshing and contributes to its lighter taste, but the mineral aspects and complex fruits make up for this lightness, giving the wine a full body.
When writing this article, a wino friend asked me, “What do you know about aging Riesling?” My gut reaction? Sure, you can age Riesling, but why would you want to? Summer’s already halfway over*.
*Author’s note: Quality Riesling actually ages supremely well. That statement just closes out the article better, and the author typically lacks the patience and foresight to allow any wine to age in his home.