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Riesling Rising: Everything to Know About the Versatile White Wine That Pairs Well With Your Favorite Foods

This varietal is finding its way onto the best wine lists of late—and should be in your cellar too.

S.A. Prum riesling tasting room S.A. Prum

If you haven’t had a good Riesling in a while, take a good look at the wine lists of some of your favorite restaurants. Riesling is definitely on the rise and more and more sommeliers are including their favorites on wine lists. We have seen quality offerings in the most unlikely places, such as New York City steakhouses, Atlanta rib joints, Vancouver dim sum restaurants and Michelin starred temples of fine dining in Paris. 

Riesling is not the most popular white wine grape in the world. In fact, it places third after Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but it remains the most planted variety in Germany and the Alsace region of France. It is grown in just about every winemaking country around the world, including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Slovenia, Italy, Israel and many others. It is also a favorite among sommeliers and self-professed wine geeks. Due to its high acidity Riesling can age for surprisingly long times; single vineyard versions from Alsace are highly coveted by connoisseurs and collectors alike.

Riesling can be made in a variety of ways from super dry with little or no residual sugar to a very sweet style such as German or Canadian ice wine. Some wine lovers avoid Riesling because they can’t determine if a bottle is dry, off dry or sweet. To assist consumers in making the right choice, many winemakers, especially in the new world, include a sweetness scale on the back label.

S.A.'s Prum winery in the Mosel
S.A.’s Prum winery in the Mosel Prum

It is believed that Riesling is indigenous to Germany because the first written mention of the variety from details the sale of Riesling vines to a German count in 1435, and in 1787 it was decreed that all grapevines in Rhineland should be ripped out and replanted with Riesling. It is interesting to note that in the mid nineteenth century Riesling from Germany commanded a higher price in the market as compared to wines from Bordeaux and Champagne

Dry Rieslings generally have aromas of rose petals, jasmine, peach and citrus peel, and flavors of stone fruits and lemon lime zest. Sweet Riesling can have all of those including the addition of orange marmalade, honey and dried apricot. Older Rieslings may have a scent of petrol which is not a fault, but a sign of a higher quality bottle. 

Riesling is extremely versatile and pairs with a variety of foods. A classic pairing for dry Riesling is with Weiner Schnitzel or pork Milanese. Off dry or medium sweet Riesling is excellent with Thai dishes or Indian curries that combine sweet, sour and spice. Sweet Rieslings (and ice wines made from Riesling) are a natural pairing for desserts including flan, crème brulee, sponge cake and lemon meringue pie. 

riesling grapes alsace france
Riesling grapes in France’s Alsace region. Zind-Humbrecht

It is planted in every one of Germany’s 13 main wine regions, but the best bottlings come from Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Pfalz and Mosel. The Mosel region is the largest in terms of production of high-quality Rieslings and many experts consider these to be among the finest in the world boasting high acidity. Pfalz is the second largest region (by acreage) and wines from this region tend to be a little less acidic. The Rheingau is planted with over 80 percent Riesling vines making this region notable for having the highest percentage of Riesling vines planted anywhere in the world. Rieslings from the Rheingau are known for their high acidity and spicy aromas. German Rieslings are delineated by ripeness and sugar levels at the time of harvest, they are, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trokenbeerenauslese. If you are looking for dry Riesling you should stick to Kabinett, although this style can also lean into the off-dry or semi-sweet category.

Alsace boasts 8,000 acres of vineyards and approximately 950 producers. This region of France is especially known for dry Riesling production with wines characterized by bright acidity, minerality and aromas and flavors of white flowers, lemon, apple, pear and peach. Alsace is divided into the Bas-Rhin and the Haut-Rhin based on the altitude at which the grapes are grown but it’s good to know that most of the Grand Cru vineyards are located in the Haut-Rhine. Austria has the ideal climate for growing grapes used to make dry Rieslings. The main growing regions include Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental, where grapes ripen on under hot sun on high terraces and concentrate their sugars during cooler nighttime temperatures. Austrian Riesling normally is fuller-bodied than its German cousin but with milder acidity and softer flavors. Look for aromas and flavors of orange blossom, river rock, white peach and nectarine.

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