Riesling, like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, the Pinots Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) and Blanc, Muscadet, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, and others too numerous to mention, is a grape for quality white wine. It is not to be confused with so-called Italian Riesling or Olazriesling, which is also a white wine grape but has a much less distinctive flavour. The trend for varietals means that most bottles you buy nowadays have some information on the grapes; Riesling wines in Germany and Alsace, where the grape was historically grown, were always labelled as such because of the prestige of the variety.

Riesling grapes have a reputation of being difficult to grow, and certainly they don't produce the best results just anywhere. The vinous flavours that result are very distinctive, which is why Riesling will never reach the volume or popularity of Chardonnay - no good Riesling is just pleasantly enjoyable, which is the part of the market where major profits are made. Nevertheless it enjoys a strong following among people actually interested in the taste of wine.

Riesling can be made in a great variety of styles: strong and absolutely dry (like the Australians do), strong with a hint of sweetness (as in Alsace and sometimes New Zealand), balanced between sweetness and acidity (like German1 Kabinett and Spätlese)2 or honeyed, concentrated and intensely sweet (Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese3 and Eiswein). The wines also range from light (Kabinett) and (relatively) low-alcohol, to heavy and full-bodied (some in Alsace). What keeps it afloat, i.e. stops the dry wines from being harsh and the sweet from being sickly, is the concentration of fruity acids, aromatic compounds and minerals - the extract. Natural sugar and acid concentration come from the ripeness of the grapes, the rest is due to the 'terroir', i.e. the soil and landscape, and the length of time the vines have been burrowing their roots into it. I quote:

Rising in steep slopes covered with a fantastic variety of stony, mineral-rich slates and soils, the vineyards react to the influence of the nearby river in myriad ways. For example, the river will keep temperatures moderate in chilly autumn and provide mists and fog to protect the vines from frost.

Realising that writing about wine is like wrestling about poetry, I will just throw at you a lot of words that might convey some of the experience of the wines: Bramley apple. Orange blossom. Apricot. Lime. Pineapple. Pear. Tangerine. Petroleum (as in Vaseline!). Grapefruit. Beeswax. Nectarine. Wild flower honey. Crystalline. Taut. Zingy. Firm. Mineral. Racy. Steely. Flinty (not sure abt this one). Send me your own suggestions - if, and only if, they are printable. Or, invest in my startup company which is developing the Smellternet, a method of transmitting aromas over the Internet via OTP (Odour Transfer Protocol).

Due to its clean acidity, Riesling goes well with many foods - the hardest part is choosing which out of the many styles of wine made with the variety. With red meat, don't try it. With chicken or fish, a strong dry or off-dry Riesling from Down Under or Alsace. With shellfish or delicately-flavoured white fish, the lighter semi-sweet German styles Kabinett and Spatlese can also be excellent. With Thai food (e.g. green curry), slightly sweet Riesling is also successful, although the spicier the food, the more alcohol content the wine needs to fight its corner - lightweight Germans are out. With fruity or syrupy desserts, the sweeter Germans (the Ausleses and beyond) come into play. Chocolate is not usually a good match for wine, but you might try it with a Beerenauslese. Good hard cheese and nuts might work with a Riesling that is balanced between sweetness and acidity - Spatlese or not too heavy Auslese. Again, suggestions are welcome.

The best Riesling I have had was 1995 Johannisberger Klaus Kabinett from Prinz von Hessen (which is a wine grower, not a Prince). The worst was something from California. Now before anyone starts jumping up and down, this is merely two data points among thousands, and New World Rieslings can be excellent, like the crisp and flavourful New Zealand specimen from Montana Wines. But I will record that the price differential between the two was extremely small - less than two to one. (Neither was above 15 bucks.) Someone must like those Californians. But then, some people prefer a waterbed to a well-sprung mattress.

1. Austria also produces good Rieslings. StrawberryFrog also brings the Backsberg Rhine Riesling from South Africa to my attention.
2. Note that Germany has also been producing high-alcohol, full-bodied Rieslings called Trocken (bone-dry) and Halbtrocken (slightly sweet); these have become very popular within the country and are growing in volume as exports too. Vorsprung durch Technik!
3. Trockenbeerenauslese, literally 'selection of dry berries', is made from grapes in which the juice has been concentrated by dehydration, often caused by Botrytis (a.k.a. noble rot).

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