A toast to riesling

Josh Mellsop
By Josh Mellsop
11 months ago
6 min read

Riesling is awesome. It’s versatile, food friendly and age-worthy. It can be vibrant, fruity and light, or rich, complex and full - or anywhere in between. It can range from bone dry to incredibly sweet, but it’s so far from the Blue Nun your nan remembers, too. Riesling’s time is now, right before the prices are jacked up to match the incredible quality that can be found easily. There was a time when Grange was $15 a bottle (just ask your dad) - well, the riesling you can get now for the same price may well be $750 in the future. Some of it cellars just as well too. Now get out there and explore the best grape variety in the world! 

Let’s take a deep dive into the wonderful world of Germany’s greatest gift to the world (other than super-fine electronics and precisely crafted cars, perhaps).

A short history

The most ancient of Germany’s grapes, riesling has been documented growing on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River since the early 1400s. Local viticulturists bred grape varieties to match Germany’s cool climate and steep slopes, and riesling thrived. Riesling’s parents were recently found to be gouais blanc (a variety that was prolifically grown by German and French peasantry at the time) and traminer crossed with wild vines.

Character profile and terroir 

One of the world’s top three white grapes, along with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in regards to global importance, riesling is one of the best white wines money can buy. Riesling can stand the test of time, with the sweetest examples capable of ageing for hundreds of years, becoming one of the most sought after wines of Germany. An aromatic wine with a huge array of different flavours, from citrus fruits to fresh red apple, to marmalade and apricot - it’s versatile, to say the least. 

Riesling’s unique ability to express terroir takes such sense of place to a much higher degree than many other white wines, and as such, it’s found itself being grown widely across the winemaking world.

What makes a great riesling?

Coming from the cool climate of Germany, naturally, the best riesling wines are grown in cooler wine regions. The naturally high acid of the grape remains even when it reaches full ripeness, allowing for wines with a huge array of flavours to be made from the grape. The late budding nature of the vine, and hard wood, allows it to cope with the odd (if common) spring frost. The most important thing for great riesling is the site. It needs sunshine to ripen to the right level (style dependent), and therefore, when planted on the best sites, it can produce quality wine even at higher yields. The most famous German wines come from the steep, slate-laden slopes on the edge of the Mosel, where the sun shines bright (and is reflected back onto the grapes by the slatey ground).

Each riesling from famous regions are clearly distinct, with their own unique aromatic profile and palate, drawing from each site’s specific terroir.

What does riesling taste like?

Riesling can be lean and citrus-driven, such as in Australia, or rich and full-bodied as in Alsace, France. It can even be unctuous, syrupy and filled with flavours of apricot, almond and kerosene as seen many of the best sweet wines. But the freshness of its inherent acidity is what makes the wine so special. Regardless of style, this acidity keeps everything in balance. 

German riesling (aka O.G. riesling) 

German riesling possess a youthful acidity, with vibrant fruit aromatics, varying from Kabinett (dry) to Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA for short, this is super-sweet dessert wine). There’s such a vast array of styles that the Germans created a - complex but perhaps necessary - system to rank them all based on the sugar content of the grapes at harvest (must weight), and the sugar content remaining in the finished wine. The most iconic German rieslings are incredibly sweet, incredibly expensive, and very rare. Although, there are some incredibly high quality dry styles known as GG (Großes Gewächs) which have become very important to the best producers, and are getting pretty pricey nowadays.

Riesling in Australia and New Zealand 

The 5th most-planted white grape in Australia, riesling is a key part of the Aussie wine-scape. The Clare and Eden valleys provide riesling with a unique climates, producing world-renowned and respected styles. Lean, lime-infused wines with racy, steely acidity, that show a classic toasty character with age.

New Zealand has also become a riesling powerhouse, particularly in the South Island. The cooler climate here allows for rieslings made in all styles, with some producers like Framingham taking the grape very seriously, making styles reminiscent of the German motherland - dry, sweet or even botrytised. Makers across the lower North Island and South Island are creating excellent examples.

Many other countries are making great riesling, including Austria, Ukraine, USA (New York’s Finger Lakes especially), Canada and Hungary. It’s a truly global grape that’s capturing the hearts of people who love aromatic wines, as well as serious collectors the world over.

Perfect Food Matches

It’s aromatic nature and high acidity makes riesling a great pairing for Asian food. It can cut through lighter curries, add freshness to Asian salads, and generally just enhances the whole affair.

The rule for dessert wines and sweet wines is that the wine should always be sweeter than the food. So pair a sweet riesling with a slice of pavlova, or a crème brûlée. Feeling adventurous? Get yourself a bottle of late harvest or botrytised ‘noble’ riesling and a lump of blue cheese and indulge in something truly hedonistic. It’s the best of both worlds - sweet and savoury.

Riesling is a true triple threat: good examples age incredibly, it pairs extraordinarily well with food, but it’s also excellent to sit and smash on a hot day with a group of mates.

Where to start...

Start with the perhaps more familiar, less challenging (to an Aussie palate, at least) dry styles, and branch out from there. The wonderful (and sometimes weird) world of this outstanding aromatic white wine awaits...

Australia & NZ

  • Grosset (Clare Valley, SA)
  • Pikes (Clare Valley, SA)
  • Red Robin (Clare Valley, SA)
  • Pewsey Vale (Eden Valley, SA)
  • Plantagenet (Mount Barker, WA)
  • Pegasus Bay (Waipara, NZ)
  • Framingham (Marlborough, NZ)
  • Dry River (Martinborough, NZ)
  • Felton Road (Central Otago, NZ)

Europe

  • Dr Loosen (Mosel, Germany)
  • Schloss Johannisberg (Rheingau, Germany)
  • Donnhoff (Nahe, Germany)
  • Hugel (Alsace, France)
  • Willy Gisselbrecht (Alsace, France)
  • Allram (Kamptal, Austria)

Elsewhere

  • 50th Parallel (Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada)
  • Anthony Road (Finger Lakes, New York, USA)

There is literally so much going for this grape. Just be sure to ask your Mofo Wine Dealer about the wine, because like chardonnay, style is everything. Grab some riesling and raise a glass to one of the world’s most iconic white grapes.