Riesling — A Guide to the Basics

From dry to sweet and at all points in between, Riesling produces some of the most food-friendly and age-worthy white wines in the world.

Riesling grapes in autumn harvest
Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps no other grape variety is as closely associated with sweet wines as Riesling. And for a long time, sweet, often sugary Rieslings made up the majority of Rieslings on the American market. But in reality, that was never an accurate representation of all that the grape variety is capable of, because Riesling is produced in styles that run the gamut from very sweet to bone dry, and in countries around the world. Sweet German Riesling may have the most notoriety, but dry Austrian Riesling is every bit as profound. And fantastic Rieslings (both sweet and dry) are made from Oregon and New York to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and more. No matter where it's grown or how it's produced, Riesling is capable of greatness. No wonder it's such a favorite among sommeliers and wine professionals.

What is Riesling Wine?

Riesling is a wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. The vast majority of Rieslings on the market are still white wines, but it's possible to find sparkling examples as well. Depending on where and how it's produced, Riesling can be dry, sweet, or somewhere in between. Riesling tends to be remarkably food-friendly, not just pairing with, but elevating a wide range of foods, from hearty butter- and cream-sauced fish and light meats to aromatically spiced curries.

Where Does Riesling Wine Come From?

Riesling is closely associated with Germany, where its most famous examples are made. In general, Riesling shines most brightly in cooler climates, which allow its natural acidity to come to the fore.

German Riesling tends to be sweet … but it's not monolithically sweet. Riesling labeled Kabinett boasts the subtle sweetness of ripe fruit, whereas Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling can go toe-to-toe with sweet desserts (and funky cheeses!) without issue. However, if you see a German Riesling labeled Trocken, that means it's dry in style. In Austria, Riesling is most widely produced into a dry wine, and the greatest examples can last for years, and sometimes decades. With both German and Austrian Riesling, a distinct sense of minerality can typically be discerned. German Sekt, or sparkling wine produced from Riesling, is also a still relatively niche wine, but a fascinating and food-friendly one that's well worth exploring.

Riesling is also produced in Alsace, where some of the greatest Grand Crus are crafted from the variety, and in Australia, where regions like Clare Valley and Eden Valley are home to excellent ones. Oregon and Washington State both boast excellent Riesling, as does New York, particularly the Finger Lakes, which produces the vast majority of the state's Riesling.

Riesling at its best is a very transparent grape variety, meaning that it expresses the character of where it is grown. This is an attribute prized by grape growers, winemakers, wine professionals, and consumers, since it closely ties any given bottle to its place of origin.

Why Should You Drink Riesling Wine?

It's possible to grow many different grape varieties in locations around the world; what makes the wines produced from them interesting are when they offer a lens through which to see the particular patch of planet Earth that their roots are sunk into. This is what's known as "terroir-specificity"; it's what makes a Grand Cru Burgundy more clamored-for than Premier Cru, for example. Riesling, it's widely agreed, has a uniquely evocative ability to express where it was grown.

In addition to the often dramatic ways in which Riesling conveys the land of its origins, it also offers a broad range of styles for consumers to choose from. Among the best of them, even sweet Riesling typically has enough bracing acidity to balance out the residual sugar, allowing each sip to be both decadent and mouthwatering.

At the table, it's difficult to find a more food-friendly white wine than Riesling. Its high acidity allows it to cut through rich sauces, any sweetness means that it works well with fruit, and the combination of the two allows it to frame aromatic or spicy foods with serious aplomb. And among collectors, Riesling offers fantastic relative value: Compared to other high-quality white wines that can age for any length of time, Riesling can be found for significantly less money than, say, white Burgundy. This is a result of less expensive land prices pretty much everywhere when compared to Burgundy's Côte d'Or, but also to the fact that Riesling was associated with unimpressive and overly sweet wines for so long. Consequentially, the good ones – and there are so many! – offer tremendous value.

What Does Riesling Taste Like?

Sweeter and riper styles of Riesling showcase more fruit, whereas dryer ones tend to be more savory. Across the stylistic spectrum, Riesling generally boasts stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, apricots), citrus fruit (lemon, limes) orchard fruit (apples, pears), and often a core of minerality. It's not uncommon to find hints of spice and sometimes honeyed notes, too. Ginger and lemongrass are also common tasting notes. Interestingly, aromas of petrol or gasoline can often be discerned in high-quality Riesling, an attribute that its most ardent fans look for and typically love.

Riesling is best served chilled, though serving temperature can vary depending on how dry or sweet the wine is, and how much of the acid or sweetness you want to highlight: Cooler temperatures will frame the more bracing aspects of a Riesling, whereas serving an off-dry Riesling at a warmer temperature will allow the sweetness and ripe fruit to shine through more clearly. And enjoying Riesling from either a Riesling-specific glass, which tends to look like a slightly elongated white wine or universal glass, or a universal or white wine glass, will work well.

Five Great Riesling Wines

There are countless great Riesling wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Riesling has to offer.

Argyle

The well-known Oregon producer offers up a number of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, in addition to sparkling wines. The 2020 Nuthouse Riesling, from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley is coiled with energetic acidity that carries lemon-lime flavors joined by lime leaf and Granny Smith apples, all of it resolving with a spine of minerality that lingers through the vivid finish.

Cave de Ribeauvillé

From Alsace, the 2016 Cave de Ribeauvillé Grand Cru Osterberg Riesling is phenomenal, a wine whose textbook petrol aromas are joined by nectarines and slate before proceeding to a palate of energetic, acid-zipped apricots, hard pears and apples, lemon-lime, and verbena.

J.J. Christoffel Erben

With their 2006 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, the great Mosel producer shows how well top German Riesling can age. This vibrates with honey-grilled pineapple, dried mangos, and petrol as well as a nod in the direction of maple syrup. The sweetness is perfectly offset by mouthwatering acidity. This still has time to go, but there's no need to wait. Younger vintages of this great bottling are also worth snapping up.

RGNY

Their 2020 Scielo Sparkling Riesling "On the Lees" from the North Fork of Long Island is almost cider-like, with crunchy autumn apples, minerality to spare, lemon and lime pith, and a touch of lemon blossom. Good luck not finishing the entire bottle in one sitting!

Weingut Fred Loimer

This respected Austrian producer is based in Langenlois, and crafts sparkling wines, Grüner Veltliner, and more. His Rieslings are unsurprisingly delicious, with bottlings from a range of vineyard sites throughout the Kamptal DAC.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles