Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah… Most of the international grape varieties originally came from France. I can think of only a couple that are from other countries, Grenache from Spain (Garnacha) and Riesling from Germany. Since I’m all for reconciliation, and because I had a very good one last weekend, let’s take a look at Riesling.
Riesling is from Germany, from the Rhine region to be more precise and it’s been there for a while with first records of the grape dating back to the 15th century. It’s a pretty easy going grape as far as growing it goes and, most importantly, it’s more than capable of surviving long and cold winters thanks to the fact that it ripens late. And a good thing that is because German and Alsatian winters are indeed long and cold. Ironically, Riesling doesn’t do as well in warmer climates where it tends to produce flat wines without much interest.
Like Chardonnay, Riesling is known to be a grape that reflects the terroir in which it is planted, with different aromas and characteristics depending on where the wine comes from. We’ll go through those in a minute but let’s first see what the common characteristic of most Rieslings is. At the core of Riesling, you’ll find a high acidity that gives it both a refreshing feeling and the ability to age long and well, especially for a white wine. To preserve that freshness, Riesling producers rarely use oak or malolactic fermentation and tend to favor a “clean” style to better express the characteristics of the grape.
Riesling aromas can vary a lot depending on the terroir. It is a fairly aromatic variety that gives off strong aromas that can range from tree fruits notes, like apples, in colder climates whereas Rieslings from warmer regions can summon peach, or even tropical fruit flavors. Depending on the ripeness of the grapes when harvested, the level of residual sugar in the wine will vary.
Another factor in the wide variety of Rieslings is that several winemaking techniques can be used. Riesling can be made as a dry white wine or as a very sweet dessert wine, and also as pretty much any style in between. Various levels of residual sugars can be achieved through various techniques, late harvesting, noble rot, ice wine, which gives even more potential style for Riesling. The Germans have a classification system for the sweetness of the wine, it starts with the dry Kabinett and then in increasing order of grape ripeness (and by consequence, residual sugar) Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
I don’t think this variety is used in blends; it is mostly made as a varietal. Germany is the main home of Riesling, especially in the Mosel and Rhine regions. Riesling is also the main grape in the German sparkling wine Sekt. Across the French border, Alsace is definitely the second home of the grape. Alsace Rieslings are usually more acidic than the German ones and have longer life expectancies. Outside of Europe, Riesling is a grape growing in popularity in regions like Australia, New-Zealand and especially Washington State in the United-States.
To sum up, Riesling, is versatile and has high acidity like Chenin Blanc, reflects the characteristics of its terroir like Chardonnay, thrives in cold to moderate climates, can age beautifully and has a wide range of possible aromas.