Riesling – A Noble Grape

Harry Lambourne
22nd December 2023

Riesling is one of the world’s most revered and well respected white grape varieties. It is deeply versatile and can produce everything from tart, acidic creations to lusciously sweet concoctions.

This article can serve as a guide to the wonderful Riesling grape which is sometimes referred to as the most noble of the white wine grapes. This shows the importance which it holds in the wine-making world. Soon, we will take you through the structural characteristics of the Riesling grape variety, as well as the tactics winemakers will employ in the vineyard and the winery to get the most out of this grape. Beyond that, we will show you the key winemaking regions where this grape variety is grown.

This will include its homeland of Germany, then the neighbouring region of Alsace, as well as key new-world nations such as Australia and America. Hopefully, we’ll also introduce you to some of winemaking regions where you may not associate with Riesling. Regardless, you’ll be gasping for a glass of the good stuff very soon!

Let’s learn about this ‘noble’ grape.

The Riesling Grape Variety

The Riesling grape is one of the few grapes which is well equipped to thrive in cool climates and is tolerant of even the coldest winter climates. Another helpful factor which relates to this fact is that the grapes are also late budding. This means that the first shoots will only appear later on in the growing season. Due to this fact, the Riesling grapes will be unaffected by the presence of spring frosts in the cooler wine regions, in which they excel. They can avoid this potentially disastrous natural factor.

Frost and Vines - A Deadly Combo
Frost and Vines – A Deadly Combo, But Not For Riesling

They are also a middle to late ripening grape variety, which means that winemakers can have a large window in which they can harvest the grapes. The exact time of harvest will generally relate to the style of wine which they want to produce. If a winemaker wants to produce a fresh, acidic white wine then they’ll harvest the grapes early before sugar has had the chance to accumulate.

Riesling grapes are also fantastic at retaining acidity while the sugar accumulates. So, winemakers can leave them on the vine for much longer and harvest later to produce wonderfully balanced and complex sweet wines. You’ll often see sweet Riesling wines produced through Noble Rot and freezing on the vine.

Noble Rot refers to the process whereby a type of fungus, (botrytis cinerea), punctures small holes in the grape skin. This allows water to evaporate and concentrates the sugars in the grapes which leads to a sweet wine.

Alternatively, the grapes are left to freeze on the vine. This produces ‘Ice Wine‘, but it is risky and only occurs in cold climates. The grapes are picked and pressed while still frozen. This means that the ice, (which contains water), is separated from the grape pulp. Once again, you have a concentrated sweet liquid.

The Riesling grape is deeply aromatic this means that winemakers will employ techniques in the vineyard and winery which aims to preserve these fresh and aromatic qualities. This could be through harvesting at night and using sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation. It also means that you’ll rarely find Riesling wines which have been aged in oak, or undergone MLF. On rare occasions, they may be aged on lees. These methods could get in the way of the grapes aromatic qualities which winemakers want to emphasise.

While oak ageing isn’t generally practiced, one slight difference occurs in Alsace where oak barrels are used. Though, this comes with a difference to the oak-ageing of white wines in somewhere such as Burgundy. In Alsace, even aromatic wines such as Riesling and Pinot Gris will be aged in huge old oak casks called ‘foudres’. These exceptionally old oak casks will have a thick layer on tartrate crystals on the inside. This greatly limits both the level of oxidation and the level of flavour which is imparted on the wine inside.

There are a variety of flavours which you can expect with the Riesling grape variety. They can display floral flecks of white flowers, tart green and citrus fruit notes of apple and lime, or riper fruit notes such as peach, apricot, nectarine and pineapple. You’ll also get a good amount of bottle aged Riesling which can really have some unique tasting notes. Aged Riesling can display flavours of honey, rubber and petrol. When properly integrated, they flavours can be truly exceptional.

Let’s look at some of the regions which are most well-known for world class Riesling.

German Riesling

We have to begin with Germany. This is an old-world winemaking great that is responsible for some of the best Riesling wine in the world. This can be everything from bone dry and fresh creations, to lusciously sweet wines produced through Noble Rot or freezing the grapes on the vine, (and everything in between)!

The most famous of the German wine regions is the Mosel wine region. Although it is only third in terms of production, many see it as the absolute leader in terms of quality.

Mosel Vineyards | Key For Riesling
Mosel Vineyards

The Mosel region takes its name from the homonymous river and as you can see from the image above, you can find the vines on a staggeringly steep slope. These slopes allow to maximise exposure to the sunlight and aid ripening in a cool climate.

This cool climate helps to lock in a freshness and acidity. It also contributes to the tasting notes. You will find German Riesling to display notes of green apple, pear and lime.

Another key factor to consider with German Riesling is the level of sweetness. There are six terms which you have to be aware of. They are Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. These terms let you know how sweet the wine is. Kabinett being the the driest, (somewhere from off-dry to medium-dry), then they get gradually sweeter.

Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese will also be produced from grapes affected by Noble Rot, then Eiswein is unsurprisingly Ice Wine made from frozen grapes.

Alsace Riesling

Now, we move onto Germany’s neighbouring region. Alsace is a French wine region with a particularly Germanic history.

The history of this great French wine region is interesting. In many respects, it is the ‘least French’ of all the French wine regions. This is likely due to the fact that it changed hands, between Germany and France, four times over a sventy-five year period. Kaisers and Presidents were clearly desperate to keep their hands of these vines.

Vosges Mountains - Home of Alsace Grand Cru Wines
Vosges Mountains – – Home of Alsace Grand Cru Wines

You’ll see why when you taste them, white wine excels here but perhaps none more so than Riesling. It is one of four ‘Noble’ grape varieties in Alsace that is permitted in the production of Grand Cru wines.

One key thing to remember is that Alsace is slightly warmer than Germany. So, while it shares the minerality, aromatic notes and crisp acidity, the usual tasting notes can vary. Expect to find more floral notes, as well as slightly riper fruits such as peach, apricot and nectarine. The Grand Cru offerings will be more complex with a greater intensity of flavours and often a touch more body and alcohol.

Australian Riesling

Now, we are going to move to the other side of the world and discuss Australian Riesling. This is an absolutely mammoth wine-making nation with a deeply varied terroir and Riesling is not well-suited to all the wine-making regions within this country.

It is within the cooler regions that Australia that this grape variety thrives. Yet, importantly in these cooler regions there is still ample sunshine and a high diurnal range. The diurnal range is a key natural factor and refers to the difference between day and night temperatures. A higher diurnal range allows for slower ripening and seeks to preserve acidity which is deeply desirable with Riesling wines.

Great Dividing Range
Great Dividing Range – Victoria, Australia

While the areas of Victoria and Tasmania have found some success with Riesling, it is within the South Australia wine zone that it is most famed. This is especially the case within the regions of the Eden Valley and the Clare Valley.

Eden Valley offerings tend to be more floral and has a touch more body, but Clare Valley is stronger in citrus notes and more acidic. Common tasting notes of Australian Riesling include flavours such as lemon, lime, orange blossom and white flowers. Then, in hotter areas and years tropical fruits notes will be more prominent. You also regularly get petrol notes with aged Riesling from these areas.

American Riesling

We are staying with the new world and the next stop on our worldwide Riesling tour are the states of Washington and Oregon. The Pacific North-West has quickly established itself as a region to watch for this noble grape variety.

The Coastal Pacific Mountains
The Coastal Pacific Mountains of America

Washington State and Oregon are both renowned for a variety of styles of Riesling. Indeed, you can find some wonderful off-dry and sweeter Riesling wines, but the majority of the production pertains to classic dry Riesling.

Riesling vines were first brought to the Americas in the late 19th century by German immigrants. Some top regions to look out for include the Columbia Valley, Willamette Valley and Yakima Valley.

You will still get strong citrus notes with these Riesling wines, (especially notes of lime), but you will get more ripe fruit notes as well. It is not uncommon to note flavours of peach, nectarine, pineapple and passion fruit.

Other Notable Riesling Producers

This first stop on this section goes to Austria. Austria is another great old-world wine-making nation with a rich and interesting history. It nearly fell completely out of favour due to a scandal whereby some less than scrupulous winemakers added a chemical which is also found in anti-freeze to mask impurities in the wine. However, this truly was a few bad apples and now the Austrian wine world is stronger than ever as small, independent winemakers create fantastic wines and have left any memory of scandal behind.

The Riesling grape variety only accounts for about 4% of plantings in the country but it is quickly garnering attention, (alongside their premier grape variety of Grüner Veltliner). Wachau and Kamptal are both areas of notes for this noble grape.

Austria is another cool climate country, but the wines will display more body and tropical flavours than classic German Riesling. There will also be defined minerality and strong notes of pear and peach. Austria Riesling is certainly one to watch.

An area which you may not associate with Riesling is South America. Many consider that it is too hot for this grape to thrive. Yet, there are pockets where the conditions are just right for all kinds of fantastic Riesling wines, particularly those of Argentina and Chile.

Chilean Wine Landscape
Chilean Wine Landscape

The souther region of Patagonia in Argentina is a key place to look out for, as well as the Bio-Bio region in the south of Chile. These are far cooler with great diurnal ranges and long sunshine hours to create rich and complex wines. These can be dry and even off-dry examples.

Last on our list is New Zealand. New Zealand is responsible for both dry and sweeter botrytis-infected Riesling wines. Hawke’s Bay in the North Island is an especially promising place for Riesling production. Expect steely, mineral creations which aren’t disimilar to those of New Zealand.

This is our brief introduction to the always lovely world of Riesling. These are great places to begin, (or continue), your journey. Yet, new Riesling wine regions are popping up across the world. Be it California or China – there is a reason that this grape variety is held in some great esteem. It is truly one of the world’s noble grape varieties and is sure to be a welcome treat when you get a luxurious offering into a wine glass. They make wine glasses just for Riesling as well, in case you really want to treat yourself.

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