Understanding Riesling

white wine

The post originally appeared on frenchsommelier.com.

Riesling is one of the most loved and respected grape varieties by connoisseurs and wine professionals, yet many wine drinkers say that they don't like it. What's the disconnect? The pros love it because Riesling can produce wines of great complexity and because of something called transparency. This is the ability of the wine to translate the specifics of it's vineyard site into flavors, aromas, and textures that present themselves in the glass. Riesling is excellent at this and the result is that within the grape's flavor profile, you get an infinite variety of expression. People that drink a lot of wine appreciate this because it's interesting and keeps things from becoming predictable and boring. Why do the occasional wine drinkers say they don't like Riesling? Well, the elephant in the room is the phrase "sweet wines" and that's viewed as part of Riesling's persona. Many people associate wines they perceive as being sweet as being of inferior quality, which is just inaccurate and misinformed. Additionally, I find that a lot of casual wine drinkers don't truly understand the differences between a wine that's fruity, yet dry, and actual sweetness. I'm not going to elaborate on a discussion of sweet and dry (that's for another post) but I will say that this belief by some that they "don't like sweet" precludes them from giving delicious Rieslings a chance. Part of the joy of drinking Riesling is that the grape can create a dialogue and tension between ripeness, fruitiness, and acidity all while delivering complexity in a range of successful styles.

Regions and Labels

The historically famous regions for Riesling are in Germany, Austria, and Alsace in France. While languages and labels can be confusing, almost all of the wines from Austria and Alsace are dry, the exception being late harvest wines which will be designated as such, for example "Vendange Tardive" in French. Germany is a little more complicated as certain wines considered of superior quality and labelled as QmP, carry designations. You may see the words Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, or Eiswein on the label. These are ripeness designations and can give a clue to the body and richness of the wine. Generally, dry wines come mostly from bottles labelled Kabinett, occasionally from Spätlese (a later picking), and rarely Auslese. If the word "Trocken" appears on the label then the wine is fermented dry, "Halbtrocken" and "Feinherb" would indicate that the wine is less dry, half-dry, or off-dry. These varying levels of sugar are necessary to balance Riesling's racy acidity. You can actually have a wine designated "Feinherb" which has more residual sugar, feel drier on the palate than a "Kabinett Trocken" if the acidity level is higher. A good general indicator for the style, outside of the dessert wines, is the alcohol level. Wines under 10% alcohol will feel fruity and sweet, between 10%-12% will be a bit drier, and over 12% the finish will be bone dry.

Other areas that produce quality Riesling in Europe are northern Italy, and some eastern and central European countries like Slovenia, Hungary, and Moravia in the Czech Republic. Excellent wines are also made in the US, the Finger Lakes in New York State is a leader along with some surprises from Long Island, Michigan, and Washington State. In addition, while not currently in fashion, the Hunter Valley in Australia had a long history with the grape. In order determine style simple look for the words "Dry" or "Semi-Dry" on the label.

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