Find Out More About Riesling: Seven Amazing Facts, One Incredible Grape

September 18, 2017 - By 

Amazingly varied, incredibly expressive and endlessly fascinating, Riesling is a true white wine lover’s grape varietal. In restaurants and wine bars from Brooklyn to Berlin, from Osaka to right here in Okanagan, this Germanic grape has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as a new generation of wine fans have discovered its charms and have been utterly seduced by its myriad qualities.

As Riesling’s star continues to rise, and more and more people express their love for the ancient green grape of central Europe, we thought it’s time we delved a little deeper into what makes this varietal so special. As such, we’ve put together a list of ten things you might not have known about Riesling, so you’ll be able to impress your friends next time you’re gathered around a slender bottle from the Alsace region of France, a classic Mosel Valley Riesling, or an elegant New World number from Canada, the US, or further afield. Enjoy!

Absolute Versatility

If you want to understand why Riesling has been revered for such a long time, and why it continues to gain devoted fans to this day, you need not look any further than at its remarkable versatility. Like the better class of 70’s rockstars, Riesling can reinvent itself for new audiences, revealing new facets to its personality with seeming ease, and as such manages to stay relevant as tastes change and preferences evolve.

Riesling can be tooth-achingly sweet, and capable of producing world-beating dessert wines via a process of withering under the botrytis fungus (also known as noble rot and associated with the finest dessert wines on earth). It can also be bone dry, crystal clear and razor sharp, thanks to its high acidity levels. You want sparkling Riesling wine? Look to southern Germany and south-east France, where amazing examples of fizzy Riesling are made and adored. Off-dry, semi-sweet, and even fortified Riesling wines are all out there, too, forever proving the unrivaled range this grape possesses.

A Global Spread

You know when a grape has something important to say when every wine producing country in the world wants to have a crack at growing it. While Riesling doesn’t sit at the top of the charts when it comes to the highest number of vines cultivated (it’s something like the 20th most cultivated grape in the world), it is one of the most widely grown grapes, with every single major wine country having their own Riesling vineyards.

Sixty percent of Riesling wines hail from its spiritual home in Germany and the German-French border, but stunning examples are coming out of Australia, where it seems to have found a new and exciting voice, and it also has a historical homeland in and around New York state, as well as in certain regions of Canada, too. Essentially, if you’re in a place which has got a cool climate and some top quality terroir, then you’re likely to find some great Riesling wines.

Fit for the Cellar

Most white wines aren’t known for their ageing ability, and are best drunk when young, fresh and full of zing. Riesling, however, is different – not only can this white wine age, but it ages really rather spectacularly well as a result of its high acidity. Cellared Rieslings often fetch huge prices at auction and become highly collectible, and when opened, they can exhibit an astonishing array of flavours and aromas. These include the rather odd ‘petroleum’ aroma associated with superior quality aged Rieslings, and the unforgettable ‘forest floor’ character which is highly sought after by fans of the grape.

While most Rieslings will not be aged for as long as certain red wines, the city of Bremen in northern Germany has a Riesling which dates back to 1653!

Expression and Directness

Many white wines undergo various processes to enhance their flavour, aroma and character – Chardonnay is famously often oaked, for example, and it is also often treated with malolactic fermentation, which helps bring forward a sense of roundness and butteriness. Riesling, on the other hand, almost never experiences such processes. Commonly fermented and aged in stainless steel, and allowed to develop without intervention or interruption, Riesling is prized for its ability to magnificently express a sense of time and place. As a result of this, vintners are keen to not allow anything to get in the way of its own natural, fruit-and-mineral flavour profile.

In many ways, this helps to explain Riesling’s current renaissance and blaze of popularity; expression of terroir is the key selling point for wines at the moment, and no grape does it better than this one.

A Truly Ancient Grape

As with many noble grape varietals, there is plenty of discussion, dispute and disagreement when it comes to the true origin of this vine. Despite this, there’s no doubt about the fact that Riesling is a truly ancient grape, and one which has been prized throughout the centuries by Europeans. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, Riesling was heralded as the finest grape in the world, and botrytised examples of Riesling wine were favoured by the crowned heads of England, France, Germany, Hungary and more, all of whom adored its complexity, flavour and character.

The earliest known records of the name ‘Riesling’ date back to the early 15th century, in its homeland of Rheingau in Germany, but across the ages (like any noble grape) it has been called many different names, including Valais in historic Switzerland, Lipka in the Czech Republic, Raisin du Rhin in Alsace, and literally dozens more besides.

The Sommelier’s Favourite

Try this little experiment sometime. Next time you’re talking to a sommelier or expert wine taster, ask them what their favourite white wine grape is. We can almost guarantee (I’d put it at 9 times out of 10) that they’ll answer with ‘Riesling’.

Riesling is popular with sommeliers for many reasons, but it generally comes down to balance. It has the perfect equilibrium between strong acidity and brightness, and soft residual sugars and fruit flavours, often finished off with an elegant minerality which makes it a joy to drink.

Furthermore, Riesling is amazingly versatile when it comes to food pairing, and even pairs with dishes traditionally tricky to find a happy wine match with. Asian foods – especially Indian curries, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, and spicy Chinese food – generally work beautifully with Riesling, which acts as a palate cleanser against the richness of these foods, while also bringing out various other subtleties and hints of sweetness. Aged Rieslings are stunning with roasted white meats, making them a favourite for Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving, and they’re also a delicious match with fish and vegetable dishes, too.

Family Connections

Recent genetic research has thrown up some surprising facts about the origins and parentage of the Riesling grape. As with almost every modern wine grape varietal, Riesling is a cross-breed, and one of its parents is Gouais Blanc, an ancient grape which was once popular with peasant wine makers in France and central Europe, due to its hardiness and ease of cultivation. The fascinating thing about this is that it makes Riesling a half-sibling (so to speak) of a fascinating range of other grape varietals, each of which is really very distinct from the other. Riesling shares one parent with Chardonnay, Colombard, Gamay, Furmint and Blaufrankisch grapes, which is something nobody would have predicted without the help of modern oenological research.

Interestingly, Riesling also has several sub-species of its own, as a result of genetic mutations over the years – some of which have proven popular. The most notable of these is Red Riesling, a beautiful pink-skinned grape which produces white Riesling wines.

Benjamin Norris

Benjamin Norris

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris is a wine critic and journalist from Bristol, UK. He is a lover of life's finer things and has a particular fondness for Alsatian and Eastern European wines, which he fell in love with during his three years working in Budapest.
Benjamin Norris
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