Give Riesling a chance: a philistines guide to Austrian Riesling
As part of our ongoing series ‘a philistines guide to…’ we’re covering the sometimes misunderstood, yet wonderfully diverse Riesling. Riesling is one of my favourite wines, and for good reason. Because it is so expressive, it really opened up the world of wine to me, enabling me to pick out some of its key characteristics pretty early, and so giving me a certain level of confidence (misplaced or otherwise) that I was starting to ‘get’ wine. So, without further ado, here’s our guide to Riesling…
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An introduction to Riesling...
Riesling is celebrated for its ability to reflect the region where it was grown and as such it is a favorite among wine enthusiasts and collectors. It has a a highly diverse spectrum of aromas from green apples, citrus, peaches and apricots, honey and even petrol. Sorry, that’s ‘gas’ for my American readers.
Some people, though, don’t have good memories of Riesling, and/or German white wines in general (as they’re often generically grouped together). One of my American guests once described Riesling to me as a ‘gateway wine’, in that the overly sweet low quality Riesling she drank when she was young is merely a gateway drink for younger palettes that aren’t quite ready for ‘real’ wine. Much like any grape though, Riesling is only as good as the winemakers allow it to be, and there will always be a market for low quality, overly sweet bulk wines. I actually think that ‘gateway wine’ is quite appropriate for Riesling, but because it is one of the easier wines to pick out smells and flavors from, thus making it a great entry point for those beginning their journey into wine.
Indeed, there is so much to this grape that demands a second look, not least it’s diversity of flavors and styles. Whether you prefer a dry, crisp Riesling or a lusciously sweet one, exploring the world of Riesling is an ideal way to begin learning about white wines.
Where does Riesling come from, where is it grown, and which countries produce the best Riesling?
Riesling’s exact origins are debated, but it is generally believed to have originated in the Rhine region of Germany, where it has been cultivated for centuries. The grape variety was first mentioned in a 1435 document from the Rheingau region. Germany remains one of the most significant Riesling-producing countries in the world and it is still the largest producer of Riesling by volume. Being a cool climate wine, other notable regions for Riesling production include Alsace (France), Austria, the United States (particularly in Washington State and the Finger Lakes region of New York), Australia (especially in South Australia’s Clare Valley and Eden Valley), and New Zealand.
What does Riesling smell and taste like?
Riesling is typically a very aromatic variety. Expect to smell anything from green apple, pear, lemon & lime, stone fruits (peach and apricot), and floral elements (honeysuckle and jasmine). Being one of the more fragrant wines makes it a good starting point for many people starting out on their journey of discovery into wine. As mentioned above, Riesling is also known to reflect the area in which it grows, and this is perhaps no clearer than in the Wachau Valley in Austria. This 33km stretch of the Danube, is a little too cool for wines in its western half, and so apricot orchards dominate the riverside landscape. As soon as vines start to appear around half way through the valley, around the hamlet of Spitz, you’ll find Riesling with very strong and pronounced apricot and peach aromas. It’s actually very cool once you start to make those connections. The same can be said of the mineral notes which are often found in Rieslings from the Thermenregion, just south of Vienna, as this is where an ancient sea deposited high mussel shell and lime content into its soils. Learn a little about the area where your Riesling is from and you may also understand why a Riesling tastes or smells a certain way.
Does Riesling really smell like petrol or is that just wine b@llsh$t?
When someone tells you that their Riesling smells like petrol, kerosene, rubber or tyres, don’t immediately reach for the nearest weapon, rather, politely ask them for a glass so you can smell it for yourself. While quite rare, and mostly associated with long-aged Rieslings from warmer climates, Riesling can indeed smell like your local garage. The science behind it is dull, but basically a gasoline-like aroma is often associated with a specific chemical compound called “TDN” or trimethyl dihydronaphthalene. This volatile organic compound can develop in Rieslings as they age. Here’s why:
1. Grape variety: TDN is a natural byproduct of the degradation of carotenoid pigments present in grape skins. Riesling, with its thin skin and high acidity, is more prone to this phenomenon.
2. Aging process: The petrol-like aroma is often associated with well-aged Rieslings, especially those that have been bottle-aged for several years.
3. Temperature: Warmer temperatures, both during the grape-growing season and in the storage of the wine, can accelerate the formation of TDN.
4. Terroir: Soils with a high mineral content, such as slate, may also contribute to the petrol-like aroma.
5. Aging vessel: Wines aged in old oak barrels or stainless steel tanks are less likely to develop the petrol-like aroma compared to wines aged in new oak barrels.
6. Winemaking practices: Wines that are left to spend more time on their lees (dead yeast cells) have a higher likelihood of developing this aroma.
Other than that, what special characteristics does Riesling have?
High acidity: Riesling is renowned for having high acidity. Don’t panic here though, I’m aware that when wine people talk about acidity, non-wine people often feel an urge to immediately headbutt them, but its actually really easy to understand what they’re talking about: after tasting a wine consider how much it makes your mouth water. Literally, that’s it. If it makes your mouth water more than other wines you’ve tried, then you can describe it as having higher acidity. Do this with enough wines and you’ll develop a good sense of acidity levels across the board.
Why is acidity important for Riesling? Without acidity in Reisling, it would often be too sweet and unrefreshing, as it is a grape that typically has higher residual sugar levels compared with others. Acidity balances sweetness, and sweetness balances acidity. Imagine it the other way around – too much acidity and too little sugar would create a very sharp, sour wine which wouldn’t make great drinking. High levels of acidity in a wine provides excellent aging potential and a refreshing crispness, and this is also why Riesling is a common grape variety used in dessert wines.
Riesling reflects its ‘terroir’: Wine w@nker word alert! Riesling is often referred to as a “terroir-expressive” grape, meaning it can convey the unique characteristics of the vineyard and the region where it is grown. Different soils, climates, and wine making techniques influence the style of Riesling coming from a given area. As a very general example, German Rieslings are known for their mineral-driven character, while Alsace (French) Rieslings tend to be fuller-bodied and fruitier.
What are some suitable Riesling food pairings?
Riesling really is one of the best wines for pairing with food. Dry Rieslings pair well with seafood dishes, poultry, and Asian cuisine. Off-dry and sweet Rieslings complement spicier dishes, and for some reason lots of people believe that Riesling dessert wines go well with er…desserts. However, every time I drink a Riesling Auslese or anything sweeter, I just want a big ‘ole cheeseboard with some veiny blue cheese on it, i.e a stilton or something similar. Indeed, the ever present acidity makes it an ideal wine for cutting through rich, creamy dishes and cheeses.
Should I age Riesling or drink it young?
High-quality Rieslings can age gracefully for decades. The combination of acidity and residual sugar often found in these wines preserves their freshness and complexity over time, evolving into more complex and honeyed flavors. But it’s worth asking the wine maker or wine seller where you buy Riesling from whether or not a bottle is better drunk young or should it be given a few years to develop. Ageing a wine that was made by the wine maker to enjoy in its first couple of years after harvest is pointless, as you’ll go past its peak of refreshing fruitiness. However, if the sugar and acidity levels are both high enough, then holding onto a wine to let it further develop in the bottle will in many cases improve it.
Where can I buy Austrian Reisling?
Check out Alpine Wines for a selection of both German and Austrian Rieslings in the UK. There are loads of good options to buy Riesling from within the EU, we always recommend going direct to the supplier and seeing if they will ship to you, otherwise check out 8 wines, based in the Czech Republic, who have a great selection. To buy Riesling in the US check out the Stage Left Wine Shop based in New Jersey.