Types, Aromas, & Stories Behind Riesling Wines
Its crisp minerality and distinctive fresh fragrance allows winemakers around the globe to produce top quality still white wines (Riesling is rarely made into a sparkling wines) of many different origins and styles.
On this page, you will find everything you need to know about the Riesling grape and wines, from the origin of the name, which countries it is grown in, the different types of Riesling wines, to which ones you should explore as a beginner.
We provide you here with simple and practical information about the grape (click to jump to sections):
- How does Riesling taste like?
- What are the different types of Riesling?
- Where is Riesling Grown in the World? Its different countries of origin
- The Story of its Mysterious Origin and Name
- Top Riesling Wines from Around the World
- Recommended Riesling Wines
- Riesling Wine & Food Pairings
You’re looking at grape profiles other than Riesling? Find more Top Grapes Infographics & Information, or keep reading.
But first things first, let’s have a look at what Riesling wine taste like, its aroma and flavor characteristics as wine.
How does Riesling taste like?
Riesling wine is rarely made with much influence from oak or aged in new oak barrel, nor is it blended with other grapes in general (except for Liebfraumilch wine in Germany and Edelzwicker in Alsace).
Some Rieslings do go through oak barrels in which case winemakers generally apply used containers of large capacity (puncheons, demi-muid or foudre of 600/1200/1800+L capacity) that do not impart much oaky aromatics to the wine but provide complexity and body thanks to a small amount of oxygen and the contact with lees.
Dry Riesling wines showcase the varietal’s pure green apple, citrus and peach flavors with a crisp and refreshing acidity.
Sweeter Riesling (see the various types of Riesling below) provide sweeter flavors of tropical fruit such as pineapple and lychee, honey, ginger, floral notes of elderflower and honeysuckle, a delicate smokiness, and sometimes a hint of gasoline/petrol.
The Aromas of Riesling Wine
There are 3 main types of aromas in Riesling wine:
1- Primary Aromas is the term to describe the smells and flavors that come from the fruit itself, from the grapes (as opposed to the winemaking). Depending on the climate and the soil, whether it’s a cool climate or a warmer one, the primary aroma profile can vary greatly.
In a cool climate like in Mosel where the grapes do not reach a very high level of maturation, wines can show typical:
- mineral notes of steel, kerosene, slate, flint, and chalk.
- as well as floral characters such as lily, rose petal, or citrus blossom.
Other typical aromas of Riesling include honey, grass, lime, and gooseberry.
In warmer climates (like certain parts of California, Australia, South Africa or Chile for example, see all Riesling producing countries further down below), grape berries and their flavors will reach a higher level of ripeness revealing notes of riper fruits or jam like:
- Stone Fruits & Pip Fruits: apple, pear, nectarine, peach
- Tropical Fruits: pineapple, mango, lychee
Most Riesling wines combine several of the above flavor families. The best examples gather the whole spectrum in an elegant complexity.
2- Secondary aromas describe the smells acquired by the wine thanks to the winemaking process. The natural flavors present in the grapes (primary aromas) combine and interact with the yeasts and bacteria that run the fermentation to create further aromatic complexity.
Riesling wines are not usually aged in oak.
Secondary aromas in Riesling therefore generally come solely from the fermentation in the form of esters and sulfur compounds: pear, flint, petroleum.
3- Tertiary aromas are developed in the bottle with age, as the wine’s molecules interact with each other and with oxygen, changing their aromatic profile. Typically, Pinot Noirs develop notes of honeycomb, beeswax, sweet spices, fennel, dried fruits (fig, apricot), along with an hazelnut/marzipan nuttiness.
The typical aroma of Riesling, often descibed as kerosene (from a molecule called TDN or 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene) tends to be amplified as the wine ages.
If this flavor is too pronounced and get quite dominant, they can become negative. With time and bottle ageing, tertiary aromas become more and more intense, while fruity primary flavors slowly fade away until they disappear.
Most wine drinkers like when primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas are all equally present and combine to provide the maximum level of complexity. In the lifetime of a wine in bottle, there is a period of a few years where this wine aromas are perfectly balanced and provide the best experience and enjoyment: the ideal “drinking window”.
Good Riesling wines generally age well
- Cheap Riesling (e.g. Blue Num) are not meant to be aged
- But good affordable ones can endure 2 to 3 years’ ageing.
- The best examples in the world like in Mosel, especially the sweet late harvest of Botrytis ones (see the types of Riesling wines below) can age and improve for 5-10 years, sometimes decades.
- Some Top Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings require a minimum of 30-40 years of ageing before one could really appreciate their full potential.
Sometimes, when the soil is very expressive, it imparts flavors to the wine. This could be slate, when the wine seems to taste somewhat like rock. This is considered a factor of quality.
The grape’s crisp acidity is something that sommeliers around the globe adore about this grape variety.
This acidity is also a reason why cheap rieslings should be served rather cold, about 6 degrees Celsius (43-45 Fahrenheit). Finer riesling wine should be served around 11-12°C (52-54°F).
Learn more with our wine serving temperature guide.
What are the different types of Riesling?
The different types of German Riesling
In Germany the variety originates from, Riesling wine labels indicate five different sweetness levels of the grapes determined by the German Wine Classification system or Qba (qualitätswein bestimmter anbaugebiete):
- Trocken (dry)
- Kabinett (dry to off-dry)
- Spätlese (sweet)
- Auslese (sweeter)
- Beerenauslese (very sweet)
- Trockenbeerenauslese (super sweet).
Although German wineries evolve towards producing a drier style of Riesling, especially on Grand Cru vineyards (Grosses Gewächs Grosses Lage), it is still often difficult to predict from a wine label whether you are buying a dry Riesling or not, unless it bears the word ‘trocken’ meaning dry in German.
In nearby Alsace, France, Riesling are known for a more consistently dry Riesling style.
Late Harvest Rieslings
Rieslings are quite often made as sweet late-harvest wines. Those are called vendange tardives in France, and erste lage in Germany.
They can be very rich, sweet and complex, and age-worthy with the ability to develop nutty, waxy, and honeyed flavors.
Riesling Ice Wines
Germany, Austria, and Canadia are the three countries most famous for producing icewines.
These specialty wines are made with grapes left to freeze on the vine so that sugars are concentrated and water, in the form of ice crystals, separates out when the grapes are pressed.
Called Eiswein ins German, Ice Wines are syrupy and concentrated, but feature very pure fruity flavors like those of lemon, orange, peach, and apricot.
Learn more with our 7 Unique Facts to Know about Ice Wine
Botrytis Riesling Wines
Riesling is arguably the grape variety of choice among winemakers for producing dessert wines using grapes that dry on the vine and develop a noble rot from the Botrytis fungus.
They are called selection de grans nobles in Alsace, while Botrytis German Riesling come under the Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese denominations. Many of the world’s most expensive wines are in fact German Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings.
German and Alsace botrytis Rieslings are deep and complex with intense notes of apricot, citrus, tropical fruit, honey, and nuts like almond.
Where is Riesling Grown in the World?
The obvious regions you will find Riesling from are in the old world: Pfalz, Mosel, and Rheinhessen are the three main regions of Germany producing Riesling. Austria and Alsace are also historic producers of Riesling in Europe.
But one should not forget Italian Rieslings from Alto Adige, Piemonte and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.
Less obvious perhaps for some, are more recent but now-renown ‘new world’ countries successfully growing Riesling such as Australia (Clare and Eden Valleys, Tasmania), USA (Washington, California and the Finger Lakes), and New Zealand (Gisborne, Waitaki Valley, Wairarapa/Martinborough, Marlborough, Central Otago, Nelson, Canterbury, and the Waipara Valley).
Riesling Main Wine-Growing Countries & Regions
Australia is divided by geographical divisions called GIs (Geographic Indications) corresponding to wine zones, regions, or sub-regions.
Clare Valley and Eden Valley have the strongest reputation for consistently producing the highest quality Riesling wines, and the most age-worthy examples at that.
Great Southern, Tasmania, Henty, Canberra District and Grampians also produce excellent instances.
The main Riesling-growing regions are Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal and Traisental.
Canadian Riesling is most commonly produced in Ontario and British Columbia. In Canada, along other grapes such as Vidal or Gewürztraminer, Riesling is also frequently used in the production of the country’s iconic Ice wine.
Riesling was introduced to the Alsace region, the area just across the Rhine River marking the border with Germany, in the 15th century.
Alsace is by far the most prolific in France for the Riesling varieties which is hardly seen anywhere else in the country. Despite its vicinity to Germany, Rieslings from Alsace display subtle differences, with a richer and fuller-bodied style depending on their terroir of origin which is very varied in Alsace (granite, limestone or volcanic). Alsatian Riesling is famous for being dry in style. Riesling here are also made as vendanges tardives (late harvest) or Selection de Grains Nobles (botrytis sweet wines).
See our page about the Wines of Alsace for more information.
Watch the Alsace Region, its Food & Wine In Video
Riesling is represented in all 13 wine growing regions in Germany, with Riesling taking up the largest proportion of grapes grown overall:
Ahr (northernmost wine region in the country), Baden (Southernmost wine region), Franken (some 65 km/40 miles east of the Rhine, in Bavaria, with most of its vineyards planted on the hilly slopes lining the Main River and its tributaries), Hessische Bergstraße (tiny region taking its name from an old Roman trade route known as the strata montana, or mountain road), Mittelrhein (The stretch of the Rhine Valley between Bonn and Bingen known as the Rhine Gorge), Mosel Valley (a gorge the river carved between the Hunsrück and Eifel hills, and the valleys of its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer rivers), Nahe, (named after the river that traverses the valleys of the forested Hunsrück Hills as it gently flows toward Bingen on the Rhine), Pfalz (bordered by Rheinhesen on the north and France on the south and west, the Pfalz’s vineyards sweep across this remarkably pretty, peaceful land for nearly 80 uninterrupted kilometers -50 miles), Rheingau (one of the most distinguished wine regions of the world), Rheinhessen (Germany’s largest wine region, Rheinhessen, lies in a valley of gentle rolling hills), Saale-Unstrut (Vines have been cultivated since AD 998 on the hillsides lining the Saale and Unstrut rivers which lend their name to the small, but growing, Saale-Unstrut region), Sachsen (Sachsen is Germany’s easternmost and smallest wine-growing region), and Württemberg (Apart from the urban centres of Stuttgart and Heilbronn, Württemberg is a rural, hilly countryside with vineyards and orchards scattered amidst forests and fields).
There are a range of growing regions in South Africa, with the Paarl region being best known for white wines.
Riesling production in the United States spans the country. Growing regions include New York (Finger Lakes), Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Michigan.
What are the Synonyms of Riesling?
Being one of the most ancient German grape varieties, over the years it’s acquired an impressive number of synonyms, 21 have been counted in fact.
These synonyms include: Weisser Riesling, Johannisberg Riesling, Johannisberger, Rhine Riesling, Riesling Renano.
Riesling: The Mysterious Origin of the Name
Strangely enough, there is no real explanation to the etymology of the name.
In “Wine Grapes”, the global reference book about all wine grape varieties by Jancis Robinson MW, is quoted the theory that the word Reissen (in old German Rizan) would refer to “split”. Later in time, it got to mean: to make an incision, to carve, to engrave, to tear, or to write. However, there was no explanation as to why this specific name was chosen.
It is probable that the grape originated from the Rheingau region of Germany where documents referencing the grape there date back to 1435. It was only a hundred years later, in 1552, that the latin edition of Hieronymus Bock’s Kreutterbuch mentions Riesling as: “Ad Mosellam, Rhenum et in agro Wormatiensi vites procreantur Riesling appellate”. This translates into: “Riesling grows in the Mosel/Rhein and in Worms” which then refers to the Rheingau region.
Yet most important with the naming of this grape, is to know how it tastes. Not necessarily the etymology of the name.
Riesling is an offspring of some of the oldest grapes in Western Europe: Gouais Blanc.
This very old grape variety is nowadays almost extinct, but some can be found in Marin, Haute-Savoie. But even there, the grape is not commercially grown.
Riesling took most of its characteristics as a wine grape variety from its Gouais Blanc ancestor.
Which Riesling Should you Try to Explore Riesling?
The Variety in European Riesling
If you want to start drinking Riesling, I would advise you to start with some Alsatian Grand Cru, which does not have to be very expensive to be good. There are a lot of high quality, but affordable winemakers in the Alsace region.
Together with Alsatian Riesling, a dry German Riesling would be the next step for you. Then over for the sweeter versions like Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
What also is interesting to try is Feinherb. This is a Riesling that has both acidity and sweetness, so if you want to build up your palate for Riesling, Feinherb would be in between Alsatian Riesling and the entry-level Germans.
Austria offers wines similar to the dry ones made in Germany, with the highest quality coming from the Wachau region. Austria is not only good in making Grüner Veltliner. Gemischter Satz is such a high quality wine to taste!
Gemischter Satz is a wine that has to come from a Viennese vineyard and a blend from white grapes whose percentage for one varietal cannot be higher than 50%, and the third largest grape variety in the wine must be at least 10%. This appellation was made to protect yields and reduce risk when there is poor harvest. These often includes Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.
After you have tasted the old-world expressions of the grape variety and your palate is educated to the traditional European expression of the grape, move on to taste the wide variety of new world, starting with Australia, New Zealand, and the USA.
Some Top Riesling Wines from Around the World
- F E Trimbach Riesling Clos Sainte Hune, Alsace, France
- Weingut Keller G-Max Riesling Trocken, Rheinhessen, Germany
- Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
- Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
- Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
- Loosen Bros Dr. L Riesling, Mosel, Germany
- Grosset Polish Hill Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia
- Weingut Franz Hirtzberger Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
- Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Brand, Alsace Grand Cru, France
- X. Pichler ‘Unendlich’ Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
- Charles Smith Wines ‘Kung Fu Girl’ Riesling, Columbia Valley, USA
- Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, Columbia Valley, USA
- Weingut Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Spatlese, Nahe, Germany
- Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany
- Domaine Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg, Alsace Grand Cru, France
- Loosen Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese, Mosel, Germany
- Inniskillin Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Canada
- Moselland Blue Cat Riesling, Mosel, Germany
- Domaine Marcel Deiss Schoenenbourg, Alsace Grand Cru, France
- Grosset Springvale Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia
Riesling Wine & Food Pairings
Whenever you want to pair a wine like this with food, we can do a wide variety of foods.
This is, due to the big range of style that can be made from the Riesling grape. With meat and seafood, we can pair it with mostly light protein like duck, chicken, shrimp and crab.
This would work because of the acidity in the wine would cut through the fat of the meat.
Asian dishes work remarkable well with Riesling too with their ingredients such as mushrooms, roasted vegetables, and spices.
It would even be paired well with mild cow cheeses like Grana Padano. Avoid strong blue cheeses or stinky cheeses in general that would overpower a delicate wine.
Sweet riesling is also particularly suited to be matched with desserts. Read more with our guide to pairing wine with desserts.
Overall, sommeliers love this grape variety, a very easy wine to pair with food and remarkably delicious.
Acknowledgements – Our Contributors
This article was developped with the help of Benjamin Roelfs, a WSET 3 Professional in wine constantly developing passion for Alsace wine andlways looking for new challenges. You can follow Benjamin on Instagram @benjamin_on_wine or find him one his website benjaminroelfs.nl
The infographic was designed and developed by Fernanda Franco on an original concept by Social Vignerons.
Fernanda Franco is fine artist and designer, she finds inspiration in her travels and in nature and in color, recent art/wine trips include France, Italy, England and Spain. Her ever-growing body of fine art includes monotypes, blockprints, drawings and watercolors on paper. Fernanda has worked as a senior graphic designer for JPMorgan Private Bank, MoMa, the Whitney Museum and several design studios in New York.
Find more about Fernanda and her work at www.fernandafranco.com