Riesling. It’s all about the fruit!
Riesling is a highly aromatic variety and is all about pure fresh fruit with no oak, low alcoholic levels or heavy tannins. It’s like biting into a perfectly ripe piece of fruit like a crisp, juicy Granny Smith apple. Intense fruit aromas should surge from the glass whilst a mosaic of flavours explode on your palate, followed by palate-cleansing acidity coupled with a delightful refreshing juiciness.
Riesling has more styles and combinations of characteristic profiles than any other wine. Some Rieslings are absolutely bone dry, with no discernible hint of sweetness. Others are off dry with a tinge of sugar and some are, when the climactic conditions are right; late harvested or, quite simply, sweet. The terms dry, off dry, and late harvest refer to the level of sweetness or residual sugar left behind in a specific style of wine. A wine is considered dry when all of the grape sugar has been converted into alcohol during the fermentation process. A sweet wine still has some evidence of this residual sugar. Whilst semi-dry or off dry wines will have a mild or softly perceptible sweetness.
The history of Riesling
Winemaking in Germany dates back as far as the 1st century. The first recorded evidence of Riesling being grown dates from around the 15th century where it was to be found first in the Rheingau region then the Mösel.
The earliest of these references dates from 1435 and can be found in the storage inventory of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Rüsselsheim (a small principality on the Rhine, close to today’s Rheingau). It lists the purchase of “um sechs reben Riesslingen in die weingarten” (translation: six Riesling vines in the vineyard). This spelling of Riesling, Riesslingen is repeated in many other notable documents of the time.
Riesling is more than likely the descendant of a wild vine that grew like a weed on the slopes of the Rheingau. It is considered by experts that Vitis vinifera sylvestris is native to Germany.
Riesling’s most notable period of popularity begins in the 17th century after the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648). When Alsace was ceded to the French the devastated vineyards were replanted – mostly with Riesling – to replace the other inferior grape varieties.
The King of Grapes!
Powerful figures in the Church used their authority and influence to promote Riesling as well. The most important decree came from Clemens Wenzeslaus, Elector of Trier (in the Mosel), on May 8th, 1787. Clemens ordered the removal of all subordinate vines which were to be replanted with more “noble” grape varieties, which was a boon to the rise of Riesling vineyard plantings.
German Riesling achieved great success in the 19th century, fetching prices on par with the great French crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But this trend did not last long. War again devastated German vineyards in the first half of the 20th century. And when German vineyards were replanted, sadly it wasn’t always with Riesling.
Technological and scientific advancements led to experimentation in the vineyard and the development of earlier ripening new grape varieties like Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Vineyard yields increased astronomically and wine production entered a phase focused on quantity over quality.
Riesling classification levels:
Kabinett: Grapes picked during normal harvest, yielding a light bodied, low alcohol wine that’s normally dry or off-dry
Spätlese: Means “late harvest”. Fully ripe grapes bring more fruit intensity and a fuller body. Spätlese wine can be dry, or off-dry and the subtle sweetness is often offset by the sharp acidity.
Auslese: Means “select harvest”. Made in the best years from carefully chosen, fully ripe grapes. These wines are lush and fairly sweet.
Beerenauslese: Literally translated means “berry selected harvest”, this wine is made from very ripe hand-harvested grapes affected by noble rot, and only in great vintages. Very sweet.
Trockenbeerenauslese: The richest, sweetest, most expensive of all German wines. Only made in exceptional years.
Eiswein: Literally “ice wine” and made from frozen grapes. They are crushed, and the ice separated from the juice, resulting in a very sweet, highly acidic dessert wine.
So where can I find the best examples of Riesling?
An early-ripening grape, Riesling does better in cool climates with poor, well-drained soils like slate. In fact, when Riesling is grown in an area that is too warm, it can easily become overripe and flabby. Very aromatic, Riesling typically smells of ripe or tart peach and citrus, depending on the climate, with distinct minerality that often comes across as smoke, slate, black rock, or petrol.
Germany continues to have the most Riesling vines, as it is grown throughout most of the country’s 13 regions. The central areas of Mosel, Pfalz, Rheingau, and Rheinhessen produce Riesling in both dry and sweet styles, often fine and delicate. Overall, German Riesling tends to be low alcohol (8-9%), quite fruity, with brain tingling acidity and touch of sweetness.
Sunny Alsace, once part of Germany, lies along the French border with Germany and Switzerland and produces both dry and sweet styles, though Alsatian Rieslings tend to have a broader mouthfeel to them. Compared to their German counterparts, Alsace Riesling tends to be drier, more minerally, and aligned closer with the citrus spectrum of fruit flavours. Austria is another top Riesling-producing country, particularly in the neighbouring regions of Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal, where Rieslings are usually dry and range from light to full.
Riesling and the VDP
Around 1910, 200 wine producers gathered to discuss a better way to classify their beloved Riesling. They coined the term “VDP” which stands for “Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweingter” – and created a stylized symbol of an eagle and grapes that graces the bottles of the association.
They created a 4 tiered vineyard classification system that closely resembles that of Burgundy:
Grosses Lage = Grand Cru
Erste Lage = Premier Cru
Ortswein = Village Wine
Gutswein = Basic wine from a lower quality vineyard