Known for being sweet, Riesling is a chameleon and has so much more to offer.

By Tammie Teclemariam
October 26, 2020
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Of the so-called “noble grapes,” Riesling is easily the most controversial. While the flavor of this white grape is distinct, a combination of yellow and green fruits often comes with a telltale nose of aromatic petrol, Riesling’s most remarkable trait is how transparently it responds to terroir.

Regular plantings of Riesling can be as plain as any other table white wine, but in Germany, where the grape likely originated, certain appellations are among the most regulated vineyards in the world, and the best bottles almost always point to the specific plot of origin. Neighboring Austria and the Alsace region of France also produce celebrated Rieslings that are arguably as grand (and expensive), though textural and aromatic differences can be strikingly distinct from their German counterparts. 

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The elephant in the Riesling room is sweetness. Many Rieslings are sweet, both at the high and low ends of the market, and by no means is that a bad thing. At its best, Riesling is a wine of extremes, displaying racy minerality, rich texture, complex fruit, and yes—sweetness. Part of what’s so remarkable about the legions of historical Riesling vineyards is that the grape can reach ripeness at all in such cool climates and on poor soils. Sweetness can be an expression of the best conditions for the grape, and oftentimes a balanced counterpoint to the other intense flavors going on. 

Additionally, sugar in wine contributes to longevity in the cellar, so it’s no coincidence that some of the most expensive, ageworthy Riesling is sweet. Sweet, late-harvest styles like Spätlese, Auslese, and Eiswein can only be made from the most select grapes which can withstand the extra ripening time without attracting bad rot. Then, due to the evaporation of water as the grape shrivels (and freezes in the case of Eiswein), the grapes yield less juice, thus adding to their rarity and value. 

That all Riesling is synonymous with sweetness however is a misconception. While most inexpensive bottles are off-dry to fairly sweet, the majority of Riesling on lists and in wine shops is dry, or at least mostly. It depends on how strictly you define dryness. Many a Mosel kabinett has residual sugar, but in conjunction with typically high levels of acid, the experience is tempered into a dynamic sweet-and-sour wine. Of course, some rieslings are sweet to the point of being dessert wine, best served in small pours with a fitting pairing. Since many winemakers don’t say how sweet a wine is on the label, it’s always good to ask your wine professional for clarity, or else check the alcohol level. Wines over 11 percent alcohol are generally dry, though styles vary significantly by producer.

Riesling can be as gastronomic or laid back as you like, representing some of the best values and the most rarefied cellar choices on the market. Here are 17 bottles, listed alphabetically, that span well-known terroirs and expressive new-world bottlings to show the best of what this grape can do.

Credit: Weingut Hexamer

2018 Riesling Feinherb Weingut Brand Pfalz, Germany ($19, 1L)

Made by two brothers who farm using organic practices in the region of Pfalz, which is Germany’s biggest wine region, although often overlooked. This feinherb (a term that means off-dry) actually drinks pretty dry with plenty of mouthwatering minerality, and extra value from the liter format. 

2018 Hexamer Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg Riesling Spätlese Nahe, Germany ($28)

Being that this is a Spätlese, or late-harvest wine, you’ll want to prepare yourself with a pairing that can stand up to the golden delicious sweetness of this bottle. Something fatty like Peking duck or buttery lobster would do well with the particular salinity of this bottle.

2019 Riesling Best's Great Western Victoria, Australia ($20)

A touch off-dry, but surprisingly lithe and drinkable, this Riesling is tangy and electric thanks to the cool-weather extremes of this Southern Australian region. Best’s is one of Australia’s oldest winemaking families, founded in 1866. 

2017 "Von Roten Schiefer" Clemens Busch Mosel, Germany ($27)

Meaning “from red slate,” Von Roten Schiefer is sourced from Riesling grown on this distinctive rock which gives this wine its more exuberant fruit flavor and texture compared to other bottlings from blue and gray slates. Busch is known for adhering to natural wine principles and typically vinifies wines dry.  

2018 Das Trocken Peter & Michael Ebert Nahe, Germany ($15, 1L) 

Trocken means dry, so you know where you stand with this party-friendly Riesling made from organically-grown grapes. Although it’s a steal at $15 per liter, it’s not an industrial wine, with production limited to 500 cases a year. Stock up if you can find it

2018 Qba Riesling Trocken Eva Fricke Rheingau, Germany ($20) 

For a dry wine, look no further than Eva Fricke, whose Rheingau wines are dramatically so, with taut minerality and lithe structure. A great bottle to cut through the fat of smoked sausage or fish. 

Credit: Hearts & Hands Wine Company

2018 Heart & Hands Sparkling Riesling Finger Lakes, New York ($30)

Heart & Hands’ traditional-method sparkling wine shows off the versatility of Finger Lakes Riesling, which is both dry and fresh enough to shine, even with bubbles. 

2018 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett Riesling Joh. Jos. Prum Mosel, Germany ($35)

An entry-level wine from one of the most legendary names in Mosel wine, if not all Riesling. You could store this wine for a decade or longer, or enjoy the push-pull palate of sweetness, acidity, and a firm note of classic diesel on this textbook wine.

2018 'Watervale' Riesling Koerner Clare Valley, South Australia ($25)

This Riesling will stump your wine connoisseur friends who might mistake the finespun structure and elegant acidity for something German, but Australia’s Clare Valley is quickly becoming a Riesling region to know for those with a taste for powerful, dry wines. 

2017 Dry Riesling Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan ($18)

At 12 percent ABV, this is a dry Riesling that leans fruity. The Old Mission Peninsula is a Michigan AVA whose climate is regulated by the influence of the surrounding lake. 

2018 Leitz Riesling Rheingau, Germany ($13)

This is the fruity weeknight table wine that can stand up to fiery stir-fries as well as it plays alongside a charcuterie board. The kiss of sweetness here will diminish if cooled, but honestly it’s so balanced it will appeal to most white wine drinkers. 

2019 Almost Dry Riesling Montinore Willamette Valley, Oregon ($18)

You might know Montinore for their Pinot Noir, but the whites from this biodynamic Willamette Valley winery are consistently drinkable and worth as much shine. This particular bottle shows lots of tropical fruit with a backbone of acidity and is fully fermented at 13 percent ABV.  

2017 Vom Stein Federspiel Nikolaihof Wachau, Austria ($40)

Nikolaihof is one of the most important producers in Austria, renowned for Riesling and Grüner Veltliner alike. Compared to German Riesling in this league, this wine might seem austere in aroma, but the texture is lush and waxy with a lemony sparkle. 

2018 Barrel X Peter Lauer Saar, Germany ($22)

Peter Lauer is well-known and beloved among natural wine crowds, where his barrel-numbered cuvees are known for their precision and persistence. Although he produces more limited bottlings, Barrel X is an incredible value and a window into the quality of Lauer’s other offerings. 

2012 Riesling Smaragd Klaus Prager Wachau, Austria ($100)

If you’re going to drop a C-note on white wine, it should at least have some age on it. Prager is another legendary Austrian producer, and again here the focus is textural, although the extra time on this bottle reveals an endless palate of lucid fruit and saline minerality. 

2017 Dry Riesling, Ravines Finger Lakes, New York ($18)

That such a straightforward dry Riesling can be so deliciously drinkable and well-priced makes a strong case for the affinity between this grape and Finger Lakes terroir. 

2015 Riesling Brand Grand Cru Albert Boxler Alsace, France ($70)

Alsatian Riesling lacks the more predictable in-your-face diesel nose of German wines, but this one still makes a powerful impression with concentrated fruit and floral aromas with rich texture that indicates both ripeness and the relatively high 14 percent ABV.