The History of Riesling
Like that of most other grape varieties, the origin of Riesling is not clear cut. There are numerous “first” documented mentions of the grape. Some viticultural historians credit King Louis the German (843–876) as the first to have had Riesling planted along the Rhine.
One of the earliest authentic documents in which it is mentioned dates from March 13, 1435 (Rieslings official birthday), in a winery invoice at the Cistercian monastery Eberbach/Rheingau. It refers to six Riesling vines in the vineyard(s) of the Counts of Katzenelnbogen. As early as 1392 the monks in the Rheingau had begun cultivating white wine varieties in vineyards that had been predominantly planted with red wine grapes. As such, you can assume that Riesling was also part of this transition.
Riesling vines, were well-tended by Benedictine and Carthusian monks and the noble families in the 15th century. However, it wasn’t until some 200 years later that Riesling’s popularity took off. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, when the French were given control over Alsace in 1648, most of the destroyed vineyards were replanted to Riesling.
Recognizing a good idea, Schloss Johannisberg, in Germany’s Rheingau region, replanted all of its vineyards to Riesling in 1720. Mosel quickly followed and, in 1787, the Elector of Trier at the time, Clemens Wenzeslaus, decreed that all “bad” vines should be ripped out and replaced by Riesling. The frenzy was underway.
The next century marked Riesling’s apogee. In the late 1800s, German examples enjoyed a global reputation and garnered prices on par with those of Bordeaux first-growths and Burgundy grands crus. In 1900, Egon Müller, the famed estate from the Mosel’s Saar district, won a Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition International. Riesling was Germany’s pride and joy, and its most widely grown grape.
But Riesling’s birthplace also happens to be the site of its decline. World Wars I and II resulted in the mass destruction of Germany’s vineyards; afterward, the country’s wine industry focused largely on quantity over quality. That drift favored earlier-ripening, less finicky varieties such as Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Riesling vines that remained were trained to produce higher yields, resulting in inferior wines.
Products like Liebfraumilch and similar mass-produced German wines, easily recognized by their signature blue bottles, drove down sales of estate-grown and single-vineyard Rieslings. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, top-quality Riesling was an insider’s secret.
But you can’t keep a noble grape down. In 1996, Riesling regained its title as Germany’s most widely planted variety. It’s grown on every continent besides Antarctica, yielding world-class wines from Alsace in France as well as Austria, Australia, California and Washington and New York in the U.S.
The Actual Grape
The Riesling berry is a small to medium size. The cluster is semi tight to loose at harvest time. Typical coloring is a green to golden green. When they are left on the vine for late harvesting, their color moves into a golden brown. There is a red skinned version of Riesling, but this is extremely rare.
The two main components in growing Riesling grapes are to keep it “Long & Low” meaning that the ideal situation for Riesling is a climate that allows for a long, slow ripening and proper pruning to keep the yield low and the flavor concentrated.
Where it Can Grow
While Riesling is grown worldwide (like most popular grapes these days), in the Rhine region of Germany, moderate to cooler temperatures in summer dominate this area.
To reach its full potential, Riesling needs extra days of sun; ripening is very late, usually not until the latter half of October. Riesling is also frost-resistant and a very dependable bearer of high quality grapes which have an acidity level that gives the wine a racy freshness and allows for continued bottle aging for over 10 years if desired.
The variety is particularly widely planted in the Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz wine regions in Germany. In 2015, Riesling was the most grown variety in Germany with 23.0% or 58,310 acres, and in the French region of Alsace with 21.9% or 8,300 acres.
In Alsace, over a fifth of the vineyards are covered with Riesling vines, mostly in the Haut-Rhin district, with the varietal Riesling d’Alsace being very different from neighboring German Riesling. This is partly from difference in the soil with the clay Alsatian soil being more dominantly calcareous than the slate composition.
In The US, The Finger Lakes region of New York State has become very popular for Riesling. Picking the grape early to make a low alcohol, high fruit flavored dry Riesling, but also keeping some grapes on the vine to produce an outstanding “Ice Wine” that is very popular in this area as well as Canada.
California is also growing Riesling. With a majority being grown in the Anderson and Alexander Valleys.
Where Riesling has taken a huge hold is in Washington State. Riesling from this area ranges from dry to sweet, and has a crisp lightness that bodes well for easy drinking. Some Washington State winemakers, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, are adapting German-style Riesling production methods, and even partnering with well-known German vintners to create specialty wines such as the Eroica Riesling. With annual productions of over 2,000,000 cases a year, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the worldwide leader in the production of Riesling wines by volume.
How it’s Made
In wine making, the delicate nature of the Riesling grape requires special handling during harvesting to avoid crushing or bruising the skin. Without this care, the broken skins could leak tannin into the juice, giving a markedly coarse taste and throwing off balance the Riesling’s range of flavors and aromas.
A wine that is best at its “freshest” states, the grapes and juice may be chilled often throughout the vinification process. Once, right after picking to preserve the grapes’ more delicate flavors. Second, after it has been processed through a bladder press and right before fermentation. During fermentation, the wine is cooled in temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks kept between 50 and 64 °F. This differs from red wines that normally ferment at 75 to 84 °F.
Depending on the region, Riesling is produced in a few different ways. The “New World” way (any place but Europe) often uses all stainless steel fermentation and aging. This also allows the process of stopping fermentation early to get a little residual sugar into the wine. This also allows for the fruit and acidity to shine. These are the typical supermarket type of Rieslings most people are familiar with.
Another method is using neutral oak barrels. With some regions having a longer growing season, the acidity of the grape really grows. Allowing the barrel to introduce oxygen into the wine during aging, assures that the wine is not acid forward and allows the fruit to balance. The acid in some of these wines is still predominant, therefore cellaring for 10 plus years won’t be an issue.
Often times, the grapes will remain on the vine to allow for botrytis to take effect. This is known as Noble rot. The process reduces juice and increases sugar in the grape. Fine dessert wines often use these types of grapes. The wine is put through oak aging and due to its high sugar content, can age in the bottle for a couple of decades and be fine.
Riesling is also the popular choice for producing Ice Wine. Produced in Germany, Canada and very small areas of the US, the Riesling grape stays on the vine until frozen. This has the same effect as botrytis. The wine then goes through the same process as dessert wine.
What Does it Taste Like?
Wine made from Riesling is quite unlike any other. It is generally light in alcohol, refreshingly high in fruity natural acidity, has the ability to transmit the character of a place through its extract and unique aroma and, unlike Chardonnay, is capable of ageing for decades in bottle. Like top quality Chenin Blanc, but unlike Chardonnay, it performs best if fermented cool and bottled early.
Apple, lemon, apricot, peach, blossom and mango are only the most obvious and most easily recognizable fruit aromas which Riesling has to offer. The balanced relationship and interplay of these aromas, combined with delicate acidity and low alcohol content, characterize the flavor of these many-layered, fruity Rieslings.
They never come across as heavy and filling, they are, rather, tender, playful, delicately fruity and literally seduce you into taking another sip. When Riesling exhibits such a boundless diversity in its fruit structure, then the aromas – embedded in a fine, discreet residual sweetness – taste juicy and delicate, and they give the wine fullness and depth.
Dessert/Ice wine Rieslings are very full in the mouth. The sweetness filling the whole palate. The fruit becoming more obvious during the finish. Often it takes a few sips to really get the balance of a dessert wine such as this.
In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Riesling then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.
► Differences Between Riesling & Sauvignon Blanc