All About Riesling

A delicious summer white


The only thing I know about Riesling: how delicious it tastes on a hot summer day. No other wine, for me, quenches thirst as well after a hot day spent outdoors. What about the grape itself makes it such a perfect summer wine? From the vineyard to the bottle, nearly everything about Riesling is engineered by man and nature to make it the most appropriate wine for a July sunset.

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.

Photo courtesy J. Star via Flickr/CC
As a grape, Riesling is hardy and dependable, capable of surviving in the dry, stony soil typical of the more northerly growing areas such as the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, Mittelrhein and lower Rheingau - all areas characterized by permeable slate soils that hold warmth well in those cooler climates. Although produced throughout Germany, these northern regions, particularly the Mosel, tend to produce the highest quality Riesling. The vine itself is made of strong, dark wood with deep grooves. If you wondered whether I know how that affects the wine, I honestly have no clue; so readers, please feel free to weigh in there in the comments section.

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.

Mentioned in this article


  • We totally agree about rieslings and summer. The two are synonymous. We will have to try some of the German rieslings - we typically stick to New World versions of this delicious grape.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 1:26 PM

  • Interesting piece which is timely and filled with good information. Although the headline is All About Riesling, it is not about all Rieslings. Just as Gregory's piece about New World Rieslings was also well done, both are incomplete without mention of Rieslings from New Zealand. These wines are some of the hidden gems of New Zealand and made in a distinctive Kiwi-style and available to those willing to look for them.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 1:31 PM

  • Snooth User: pbreikss
    317424 5

    I heard Sylvan Hugel say that a good Alsatian Riesling can remind the taster of !! gasoline!! When asked if he ages his Riesling in oak, he said "my family is in the wine business, not the lumber industry".

    Aug 17, 2011 at 3:24 PM

  • We recently had some riesling that was very strong in Petrol notes:
    We didn't consider it "good" and plan to turn the other bottle (we had a duo) into a sangria or use it for cooking. I guess we should reconsider :-)

    Aug 17, 2011 at 3:45 PM

  • Snooth User: Masha7
    481688 10

    In Germany, the dry, mineral-tinged Rieslings are much more sought-after, and, after developing a taste for them there (amazing wines), we are so sad to find they are NEVER sold down here in the SE US. Only the sweet, sweet, sweet are stocked! Hopefully, articles like yours will change this.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 4:07 PM

  • Snooth User: whl2
    909866 0

    If you enjoy sweetness, try Hogue's Late Harvest Riesling from Washington State's Columbia Valley 2010, and the price is quite reasonable. My dearest lady friend, Anna, picked up on the oily taste, which I missed completely at first, in the Firestone Riesling from Central Coast in California 2008. I'd just as soon stay away from oil in my wine -- they don't mix very well to me. It truly is fun trying different Rieslings since there seem to be many variations on a theme...........Bill Lee

    Aug 17, 2011 at 6:05 PM

  • Snooth User: dbtjes
    324488 6

    Our favorite dry Riesling is a Canadian - southern Ontario vineyard called Reif Estate... We came across this wine during a tour many years ago, and we continue to have it shipped to us several cases at a time. We have enjoyed several from Alsace and Germany (quality in the mineral note and acidity), and several from the New World including US, Australia and New Zealand, but we keep coming back to this favorite.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 7:01 PM

  • Snooth User: bmoran
    163260 1

    Clean Slate from the Mosel was on sale several years ago, and I'm glad I tried it. It's my 'go to' whenever hot weather demands a cool glass of refreshment.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 7:16 PM

  • Snooth User: Mrlucky7
    707493 46

    Hogue Late Harvest is my favorite Summer and Winter Wine :-)

    Aug 17, 2011 at 9:48 PM

  • Snooth User: sebrof
    916583 0

    For my money the entire article is lacking. Some of the German weinguts go back to the 12th century, and the Riesling grape is certailly older than he makes out! And Americans and the rest of the world has appreciated German Rieslings since WAY before the turn of the millenium. Centuries before! And to have no mention of Alsace Rieslings is just mindblowing! Who writes this stuff anyway!

    Aug 17, 2011 at 10:29 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    Trockenbeerenauslese rieslings are some of the more expensive wines available and are divine. They age well and the "oily" taste is not offensive to those of us who enjoy these wonderful wines. Also had a wonderful TBA made with the Ortega grape. I think Riesling TBAs are superior to sauvignon blanc based TBAs. Just to clarify, you don't have to buy TBAs to enjoy the great fresh taste of sweet or slightly sweet rieslings.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 11:09 PM

  • Great article, especially the last note from the author is precious and I can only feel the pain as well. I have a hard time keeping great German Rieslings alone. I am a fan of the Mosel Rieslings and of course Carl Schmitt-Wagner comes to mind which is one of my favorites. I found this article which describes the experience of a very old Mosel Riesling wine. I have had the pleasure to taste this great wine at the winery.

    Aug 18, 2011 at 1:48 AM

  • To review Riesling and not mention New Zealand or Alsace, is a bit like describing the shark family and confining it to basking sharks.
    A long holiday touring all those little towns called something-wihr and eating pork products and freshwater fish is recommended if you want to discover rieslings, pinots, and gewurztrmainers

    Aug 18, 2011 at 6:23 AM

  • Good dry riesling sometimes does have a whiff of gasoline, and its high acidity and citrus character is also great with chinese food and fish and chips

    Aug 18, 2011 at 6:26 AM

  • If you want to taste some real jetfuel, try some greek retzina. Admittedly, I haven't had an expensive one (and maybe they exist) but their taste is memorable, to say the least.

    I've had a number of Rieslings from the NY Fingerlakes region and they compare to the best anywhere. There are numerous labels.

    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:00 AM

  • Snooth User: whauptman
    864967 2

    For Mosel dry riesling, i have never gone wrong with J. J. Prüm. The Kabinetts are really delicious and usually about 8% alcohol. The only problem is price, since they are a bit more expensive, but frankly for a few bucks more the level of quality goes up. How about Australian riesling? Anybody recommend them?

    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:08 AM

  • Snooth User: bmoran
    163260 1

    I've heard Randall Graham had to be talked out of starting a restaurant featuring ONLY rieslings on the wine list. Now that would make for some odd pairings!

    Aug 18, 2011 at 11:30 AM

  • Snooth User: steve09
    918354 0

    I agree with the article that summer is the perfect time to enjoy a nice riesling...think I"ll do that this afternoon.

    Aug 20, 2011 at 11:59 AM

  • Snooth User: ted m
    686649 6

    I have recently had the pleasure of consuming some perfectly sound rieslings from the 1970's so i know just how well the keep.
    I also recently visited a winery on the Rhine and was amased at the difference the slate type made. we sampled a number of wines from grey slate soils and then one from red slate.

    Aug 22, 2011 at 6:31 AM

  • Snooth User: cosmoscaf
    256062 54

    My first really great wine experience was with Riesling in an inn in Koblenz, at the juncture of the Mosel and Rhine rivers. It happened in mid-March which is winter. I still like Riesling as a winter dinner wine. The occasional bottle with a bit of fuel indicates (for me) a tendency to pair easily with food as well as some aging potential. Since I am obnoxiously patient insofar as wine is concerned, I benefit from that. For that same reason, it made me sad to see that last paragraph in the article. My favorite Riesling comes from Alsace - Albrecht, please - but wonderful wines are made around the world. Mosel may be the biggest of the best producers, but NZ, AU, Washington, are all making great stuff, whether you like dry or sweet. And don't be afraid to pair it with a good grilled steak. Riesling is the ultimate pairing wine.

    Aug 28, 2011 at 12:07 AM

  • If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of grapes, Riesling is for sure the queen of the kingdom of grape varieties. A lot has already been said here, and yes, as far as I have read the comments it is all true.
    Just a small point about the often spoken off 'petrol' smell ... First of all, not every Riesling offers that particular smell. I find the Rieslings from Australia and Alsace (France) more prone to the 'petrol' smell. And for a very long time, people (including wine writers and producers) thought it is just part of Riesling wines. A natural phenomenon, they said. But, over the years, believes have changed. At the Institute of Masters of Wine we are being taught that after all is said and done the 'petrol' smell is a flaw in the wine ... that it is not something that belongs in the wine. You can find more information about this on the internet (google: petrol in riesling).

    Oct 29, 2011 at 9:27 AM

  • Snooth User: Thursty
    71420 4

    I recommend a Bluefeld Riesling. Had it at a company dinner last week and it was excellent. Not available everywhere so you might have to search around a bit. It's on the sweet side, not dry at all.
    Went well with the Italian Trout dish I ordered.

    Dec 16, 2011 at 1:42 PM

  • Snooth User: Thursty
    71420 4

    Just adding that you should get the 2009 Bluefeld Riesling. 2010 was not a good year weather wise in the area of Germany it's grown.

    Dec 16, 2011 at 1:45 PM

  • Snooth User: Baroque60
    1017260 1

    Can anyone please point me to a New World Riesling with acidity to the levels of most German Rieslings? I adore German Rielsings, but have so far been disappointed in the New World wines I've tried. To me they lack acidity and thus excitement. They're pleasant but a little dull. I would very much welcome a recommendation from anyone who also appreciates some acidic "tickle" :-)

    Jan 15, 2012 at 1:10 PM

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