The Case for Drinking Riesling
Get to know one of the world's most versatile grapes.
Originally from Germany, riesling is a white grape variety that's now grown all over the globe. It produces one of the most popular white wines in the world, and it's beloved by everyday wine drinkers and sommeliers alike—and once you get to know it, it's easy to see why! First of all, it's incredibly versatile: Riesling ranges from dry to sweet, it's delicious either fresh or aged, and you'l find that it's made in both still and sparkling styles. Basically, there's a riesling out there for every palate. Sommeliers adore it because it's one of the most food-friendly wines around. The delicate, dry styles are perfect with seafood, the sweeter styles can counter the heat in spicy dishes, and rich, luscious styles are excellent with cheeses or even sipped as a dessert wine.
Perhaps most appealing of all, is the fact that riesling is an expressive wine. Depending on where the grapes are grown, there's a different dimension to each bottle. And finally, it's a wine that ages incredibly well due to its high natural acidity that acts as a protectant and preservative. You can keep these bottles in your cellar for years and they will only get more interesting.
What Does Riesling Taste Like?
Riesling is an intensely aromatic grape: Its abundant fragrances bounce right out of the glass. You will commonly smell stone fruits like peach, nectarine, and apricot. Apple, pear, lemon, and lime can be present, and floral aromas like honeysuckle and jasmine are typical. One unusual aroma is riesling is a rubbery or gasoline-like smell referred to wine experts as "petrol." On the palate, one thing that distinguishes riesling is its intense acidity. Even the sweeter styles have a real mouthwatering tartness to them (think about lemonade, which can be brisk and crisp while being sweet at the same time—that's the kind of acid profile we're talking about).
Not sure whether your bottle will be dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, or sweet? The International Riesling Foundation has created a scale graphic called the Riesling Taste Profile to help consumers know what they're getting: it's located on the back label of millions of bottles of Riesling. Without depending on the scale, you can expect drier riesling to come from Alsace, New York's Finger Lakes region, Washington State (especially if it's labeled "Dry Riesling"), and wines from Germany labeled "Trocken," which means dry. In general, you can expect under-$10 bottles of riesling to be sweet.
Riesling from Germany
The birthplace of riesling, Germany, has 56,000 acres of riesling grapes. Look for riesling wines from the Pfalz, Mosel, and Rheinhessen regions. Germany has a labeling system that makes choosing wines simple: "Kabinett" is the lightest style; these wines are dry or off-dry. "Spätlese" (meaning late-harvest) is richer and sweeter than Kabinett. "Auslese" (select harvest) are hand-selected and very sweet. For dessert wine, look for "Beerenauslese," "Trockenbeerenauslese," and "Eiswein"—these are all made from grapes that have been raisinated on the vine. Great bottles to try if you're just getting into German riesling are Clean Slate Riesling 2019 ($9.99, wine.com), Donnhoff Estate Riesling 2018 ($24.99, wine.com), Schloss Johannisberg Gelblack Riesling 2018 ($32.99 , wine.com), and Robert Weil Estate Riesling Spatlese 2015 ($35.99, wine.com).
Riesling from the United States
The two primary growing regions for riesling in the United States are New York's Finger Lakes and Washington's Columbia Valley. In 1958, Dr. Konstantin Frank planted riesling on the western shores of the Finger Lakes. The grape thrived in the frigid climate and it showed the potential for New York as an emerging wine region—today many of the area's wines are acclaimed around the world. In Washington state, riesling was first planted in Yakima Valley in 1967, and today there are over 5,000 acres of riesling grapes planted there, making it the largest production area of riesling in the country. The Columbia Valley has very cool evenings which help preserve riesling's crisp acidity.
From New York, we recommend Red Tail Ridge Estate Dry Riesling 2017 ($20.99, wine.com) or Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2018 ($15.99, wine.com). And from Washington, try Poet's Leap Riesling 2018 ($19.99, wine.com) or Eroica Riesling 2017 ($20.99, wine.com).
Riesling from Australia
You might know Australia as home to big, bold, and spicy shiraz wines, and if so, you might be surprised to find out that riesling has been one of the primary grapes planted in the country since the mid-1800s. Most Australian riesling is bone dry with sharp acidity and bright fruit.
The two main areas to look out for are Clare Valley and Eden Valley. Clare Valley has a warmer climate but dramatic day-to-night temperature swings and high elevations, which keep things nice and cool. You'll experience a lot of minerality in Clare Valley wines. Eden Valley has some of the world's oldest riesling vines and will be more fruity and floral. We recommend Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2019 ($18.99, wine.com), Handpicked Wines Regional Selection Clare Valley Riesling 2017 ($27.99, wine.com), and Jim Barry Lodge Hill Riesling 2019 ($22.99, wine.com).
Riesling from France
The main region for riesling in France is Alsace which is not surprising considering the regions long, complex political history with Germany. Alsace is known for concentrated, dry-style riesling with a laser-sharp acid structure. White flowers and citrus aromas are typical, followed by flavors of peach and pear, and a mineral finish. Great Alsatian rieslings to try include Trimbach Riesling 2017 ($19.99, wine.com), Domaine Emile Beyer Riesling Tradition 2018 ($26.99, wine.com), and Zind-Humbrecht Riesling 2016 ($28.99, wine.com).
Pairing Riesling with Food
The more delicate and dry styles of riesling are ideally paired with light seafood dishes and vegetable salads. Try Dungeness Crab Salad, Peekytoe Crab Toast, and Cucumbers with Lemon and Basil. For a sweeter riesling, try a pairing with spicy or Asian-inspired flavors: Chili-Glazed Fried-Chicken Lettuce Cups, Five-Spice Pork Tenderloin, or Thai Green Shrimp Curry. And for rich, dessert-style rieslings, pair Blue Cheese Gougères with Caramel and Salt or Lemon Custard Tarts.