The one true classic non-French grape, Riesling is the most versatile, scented white variety in the range of wines it produces from dry to lusciously sweet. Yet it’s revival always seems to be just around the next corner.
This is as much because of its tarnished reputation due to Liebfraumilch and the array of wanna-be Rieslings which have arrogated the good name of Rhine Riesling (Olasz, Welsch, Laski, Riesling Italico) as for the steely acidity which generally makes for more demanding wines than those produced from Sauvignonor Chardonnay.
The late-ripening Riesling’s heartland is the steep Mosel and Rheingau valleys of Germany, where it produces wines rich in crisp, lime and appley flavours and honeyed richness. Its classification from dry to sweet gives it an entirely different cultural slant from its French counterparts, with the perfumed, sweet styles ranging from auslese to trockenbeerenauslese in great demand.
Fine, dry Riesling is not only increasingly fashionable in Germany, but in Alsaceand Austria too. In the Wachau in particular, some of the world’s greatest dry Rieslings are produced.
As a cool climate variety par excellence, Riesling has not adapted as well as the other to classics to the New World, but there are a handful of regions where it has been shown to do well, most notably the Eden and Clare Valleys in South Australia, Mount Barker in Western Australia, New Zealand’s South Island, Washington State, and cooler spots in California and the Cape’s Constantia.
In its Teutonic heartland of the Mosel and Rheingau Valleys, Riesling produces elegant wines with crisp, lime, lemon, apple and peach flavours and honeyed richness. In the Mosel it is said to become slatey, which is easier to describe as minerally, developing honey, petrol and kerosene-like flavours. In Alsace it can be more floral and perfumed, while Australian Riesling, particularly from the Eden and Clare Valleys, starts out lime and lemon-like and develops a minerally, keroseney character with age.
Riesling’s renowned regions
Alsace’s unique climate comes from the fact that its terraced vineyards at 200m-400m altitude lie in the rain shadow of the Vosges mountains. For Olivier Humbrecht MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht: ‘Dry is a better expression of Alsace Riesling most of the time.’ Biodynamic farming has led to healthier grapes and earlier harvesting. Diverse, well-drained soils are ideal for imparting a wide variety of alluring characteristics to Alsace’s perfumed and deliciously full-bodied, textured, dry Rieslings: smoky wines from volcanic Rangen, citrussy wines from Schoenenbourg, for instance. There is also sweet vendange tardive, and lusciously rich sélection de grains nobles.
Alsace’s best producers include Boxler, Deiss, Domaine Weinbach, Hugel, Josmeyer, Léon Beyer Ostertag, Schlumberger, Trimbach and Zind- Humbrecht.
One of Germany’s mildest, driest and most fertile regions, Pfalz’s Riesling vineyards lie over a patchwork of ancient and more recent soils. Pfalz’s predisposition towards dry Riesling combining full body, substance and richness of fruit (sometimes described as yellow fruit) with finesse and minerality, is aided and abetted by a beneficial ripening climate.
Today’s roll-call of top producers extends from traditional names such as Bassermann-Jordan, Bürklin Wolf and von Buhl to Christmann, Dr Wehrheim, Knipser, Koehler-Ruprecht, Okonomierat Rebholz, Philipp Kuhn and von Winning.
There has been a complete turnaround in the image of Germany’s Rheinhessen as a mass-market producer of vapid, cheap Liebfraumilch, thanks to a new generation of committed growers exemplified by the Message in a Bottle group. Protected from cold winds by the Hunsrück and Pfälzer forests and the Taunus hills, Rheinhessen’s relatively warm, dry climate and diverse soils produce quality dry, stone fruit-focused Rieslings from two very different locations. One is the Roter Hang strip comprising Nierstein and Nackenheim in the dramatic Rheinterrasse vineyards, with Gunderloch, Kühling-Gillot and Schätzel making waves. The other is the Wonnegau, where Keller and Wittmann conjure up rich yet pure, complex Rieslings structured by elegant minerality.
Among other names to watch are Battenfeld Spanier, Dreissigacker, Fauth, Geil-Bierschenk, Gutzler, Huff, Pfannebecker, St Antony, Spiess, Stepp, Thörle, Wagner-Stempel and Winter.
Compact and scenic, the Rheingau has for years been regarded as Germany’s noblest wine region thanks to its affinity for Riesling, its proximity to the markets of Mainz, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden and its historic grand castles, aristocratic estates and famous monasteries, not forgetting one of the world’s leading viticultural institutes at Geisenheim.
Approximately 80% of the Rheingau’s south-facing vineyards slope gently down to the Rhine, the best Rieslings being firm, often apricot-laden and refreshingly dry and intense with mineral qualities.
Best growers include August Kesseler, Eva Fricke, Franz Künstler, Georg Breuer, Graf von Kanitz, JB Becker, Johannes Eser, Josef Leitz, Peter Jakob Kühn, Prinz, Querbach, Reiner Flick, Robert Weil, Schloss Johannisberg, Schloss Reinhartshausen, Schloss Schönborn, Schloss Vollrads, Spreitzer and Wegeler.
One of the driest German regions, protected by the Rheingau and Hunsrück ranges, Nahe is an area of great geological diversity. Its Rieslings vary from spicy, full-bodied and long-lived, to elegantly fruity, to Martin Tesch’s racy, dry wines, with a range of flavours from apple to peach and more exotically zesty notes. Beautifully crafted Rieslings from Dönnhoff are among the Nahe’s, and indeed the world’s, greatest. ‘Riesling has to be like rock water or a mountain stream,’ says Hermann Dönnhoff. ‘It can be shy to start with but should have length and acidity that makes it dance across the palate.’
Dönnhoff apart, Nahe greats include Emrich-Schönleber, Hans Crusius, Schäfer-Fröhlich and Schlossgut Diel.
The Mosel is one of Germany’s and the world’s most picturesque, fascinating and charming wine regions, with vineyards clinging to steep and rocky, heat-retentive slopes above the Mosel river and its tributaries. Characterised by an Atlantic climate with cool summers and relatively mild winters, its mainly weathered Devonian slate soils impart a mineral character in styles varying from dry and fine-boned to intensely rich and sweet with piercingly fresh acidities and relatively moderate alcohol levels. According to Haeger, Mosel Rieslings tend to be ‘marriages of slatey, mineral-rich flavours with sensational aromas not primarily derived from fruit but instead from floral and herbal elements of their aromas, steely acidity and delicate structures’.
The roll-call of excellent dry Riesling producers includes Clemens Busch, Dr Loosen, Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Grans-Fassian, Heymann-Löwenstein, Immich-Batterieberg, Karthäuserhof, Markus Molitor, Maximin Grünhaus, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Reinholdt Haardt, Schloss Lieser, Sybille Kuntz, Thomas Haag, Van Volxem and Willi Schäfer.
Baden produces some fine Rieslings, most notably those of Andreas Laible and Schloss Neuweier. Full-bodied and often bone-dry, firm and earthy, Franken Rieslings (in the distinctive squat bocksbeutel bottles) are considered to be among the most masculine of Germany’s wines. Top growers include Bürgerspital Würzburg, Horst Sauer, Johann Ruck, Juliusspital Würzburg and Schmitt’s Kinder. Riesling is an important variety in Württemberg, with vigorous, rustic flavours – Beurer, Dautel, Fürst zu Hohenlohe-Oehringen, Graf Adelmann, Schnaitmann, Wachtstetter and Wöhrwag make particularly good wine. Along with Sachsen, Saale-Unstrut is Germany’s most northerly wine region and also one of its smallest. The Rieslings here are relatively light but can be quite rich, pure and mineral.
Best producers: Günter Born, Lützkendorf and Pawis. Lying above the 51st parallel, Sachsen covers just under 500 hectares, with good wines made by Karl Friedrich Aust, Schloss Proschwitz, Schloss Wackerbarth and Zimmerling.
Riesling’s second most important habitat after the Rhine basin is the Danube basin, and in particular Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) and the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal. The terraced vineyards of the Wachau are pre-eminent, with 16% of Austria’s vineyard surface planted to Riesling. In its steep, thin, rocky soils and with cool temperatures, they are aromatic, distinguished, lean, dry and mineral. The more loamy soils of neighbouring Kremstal are home to slightly gentler and plumper Rieslings, while the grands crus of Gaisberg and Heiligenstein in the Kamptal can produce elegant, complex dry wines.
‘Riesling expresses greater differences in microclimates and in soils than other grapes,’ says Willi Bründlmayer, one of Austria’s top exponents of the variety. ‘The average Austrian drinker prefers Riesling dry.’
Top growers include Bründlmayer, Emmerich Knoll, FX Pichler, Franz Hirtzberger, Franz Prager, Freie Weingärtner Wachau, Jurtschitsch, Loimer, Martin Nigl, Nikolaihof, Pichler-Krutzler, Rainer Wess, Salomon Undhof, Schloss Gobelsburg and Stadt Krems.
The deliciously dry, lime-flecked and toasty Rieslings of the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia are unique. According to Jeffrey Grosset: ‘Clare Valley Riesling is generously flavoured, dry, limey, usually quite fine, reflecting the warm sunny climate.’ Polish Hill River’s mineral qualities in particular bring greater palate persistence. Next to Clare, the Eden Valley can produce mineral, bone-dry Rieslings from sites such as the rocky Steingarten, while there are growing pockets of excellence in Frankland River in Western Australia, in parts of Victoria and in cool-climate Tasmania (also a producer of gorgeous, luscious sweet Riesling).
Best Riesling producers include Bay of Fires, Cooper Burns, Dandelion Vineyards, Frankland Estate, Jacob’s Creek (Steingarten), Jeffrey Grosset, Kilikanoon, Larry Cherubino, Leasingham, Leeuwin Estate, Mac Forbes, McGuigan (The Shortlist), Mount Horrocks, Peter Lehmann, Pewsey Vale and Pikes.
The area under Riesling vine in New Zealand has grown rapidly to 1,000ha. While the Australian style is predominantly dry, New Zealand Riesling mirrors Germany with validity in both dry and sweet styles. Indeed, excellent producers such as the Finns of Neudorf in Nelson, the Donaldsons of Pegasus Bay in Canterbury, Nigel Greening of Felton Road and Auburn in Central Otago as well as Framingham in Marlborough make both a dry Riesling and the sweeter, lighter, more Moselstyle Riesling. Good as these wines can be, however, they have yet to reach the heights of their German peers.
Top producers include Auburn, Felton Road, Framingham, Greywacke, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley.
Riesling is grown in three main areas of North America: the Great Lakes encompassing the Finger Lakes and Lakes Ontario and Michigan; the Columbia River Basin, which brings Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia into play; and California. Since the 1950s, Riesling was synonymous with the soft, fruity and slightly sweet style and it has by and large remained that way. According to Haeger: ‘There is little reason for the American consumer not to assume that Riesling is sweet, since a huge fraction of what is offered in the American market is to some degree sweet.’
Yet there are signs of a move towards drier styles, and delicious wines at that, in pockets of the Finger Lakes, Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, on Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, around Okanagan Lake in British Columbia and parts of California and Oregon. Delicately luscious Riesling ice wine from the likes of Inniskillin is a Canadian forte.
Good producers include 13th Street, Cave Spring Cellars and Henry of Pelham in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, and Wild Goose in British Columbia; Charles Smith and Chateau Ste Michelle in Washington State; Anthony Road, Dr Konstantin Frank, Falling Man, Hermann J Wiemer, Lamoreaux Landing and Red Newt in Finger Lakes, New York State; Black Star Farms and Chateau Grand Traverse in Michigan; Brooks in Oregon; and Kick-On Ranch, Navarro, Smith Madrone, Stony Hill and Tatomer in California.