With temperatures hitting record highs and the world seeming to change in unprecedented ways every day, we all need a versatile wine option that can quench your thirst without breaking your wallet, or your palate.
For someone who has to constantly take this into consideration… it’s quite honestly, an easy decision. This grape variety is not only one of the most incredibly versatile food pairing options, but also among the most misunderstood wines to ever exist.
When someone mentions Riesling, what comes to mind? It seems to me, as a professional sommelier, that the majority of people I tell to pair their dishes with Riesling automatically cringe with the thought of sugary sweetness. And, while Riesling does offer this style of wine, there are countless expressions that may be the perfect accompaniment that you never knew existed.
Let’s start by talking about where Riesling grows and thrives in the world. The origin and primary home of this mouth-watering wine is the steep hills and cool-climate of Western Germany. The Rhine River actually flows through multiple countries in Europe, but the latitude of Germany provides the perfect climate to ripen and preserve the stinging acidity that gives Riesling its signature bite.
The primary regions that it flourishes in are the Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Pfalz & Nahe. Each region tends to use its own quality classification, and the laws that correspond to these classes are often where you will discover the sweetness levels. Mosel, for instance, uses the Pradikatswein system for its higher quality wines. With this system, the label will express the ripeness level of the grapes when they were harvested. In ascending order, the sugar levels are Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
With most of these wines, you can assume there will be a level of residual sugar unless the label states “trocken,” which is the German word for dry. Anything above the Auslese level is usually in the dessert wine camp.
Outside of the Mosel, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweinguter (VDP) system is often used for the wine quality levels. These can encompass sweet and dry styles, but have an additional level ofbquality that corresponds to where the grapes are grown, in the Burgundy vein.
When the label states Grosses Gewächs, (GG or great growth) and Grosse Lage (great site), this is the equivalent of Grand Cru in Burgundy, and GG, by law, must be dry.
Just West of Germany lies the French region of Alsace. While it is currently a French territory, it has changed hands with Germany on multiple occasions with boundary expansion due to war. Most of its residents speak both German and French, and enjoy the sunniest climate of any wine region in France because of the rain shadow effect that the Vosge mountains.
While this area is sunny and ripens the grapes beautifully, the majority of the Alsatian Riesling wines are dry.
For sweet versions of Alsatian Riesling, look for VT (Vendage Tardive), or SGN, (Selection Grains Nobles). Alsace uses a Grand Cru classification system, according to vineyard site and there are currently 51 Grand Cru sites in the region.
While it is not the signature varietal, Riesling is also grown in fairly significant amounts in the
northern reaches of Austria. Bordering the Czech Republic to the north, The Niederösterreich region specializes in Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. This expression of the grape is primarily bone-dry and extremely mineral-driven. It tends to be a bit fuller-bodied than German Riesling. But being so far north allows it to ripen longer on the vine and develop complexity without featuring overripe qualities. Food pairings tend to lean towards earthy, lightly spiced or strongly flavored dishes like river or lake fish such as salmon.
Although known for cooler growing regions, Riesling is also fantastic in warmer climates such as
Australia and the United States. Australian versions were first planted in the eastern state of New South Wales, which is now known for its strangely named “Hunter Valley Riesling,”, that is actually not Riesling at all, but Semillon.
These days, Riesling is primarily cultivated in the South Australia areas of Clare and Eden Valleys, flanking the Barossa that is famous for its bold Shiraz. The Australian style tends to be thicker-skinned, and sometimes having an oily texture while developing uber-strong aromatics and freakishly citrus-mineral qualities.
In the USA, the area that thrives on its Riesling-heavy production is the east coast region of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. A robust 828 acres of Riesling are under vine, making it, by far, the most cultivated wine grape in the Finger Lakes, with Chardonnay coming in second, at 340 acres.
Riesling comprises over 200 brands with each producing, on average, 2-3 styles on an annual basis. New York is now the third largest wine producer in the US, behind only California and Washington, while the Finger Lakes make up ninety percent of winemaking within the state. These new world wines lean towards dry, minerally, ultra-food-friendly styles.
In smaller scales, Riesling is also produced in places such as Italy, in the insanely high-altitude region of Alto Adige, the tiny Duchy of Luxembourg, along the Moselle river, just upstream from its German counterpart, New Zealand’s relatively cool areas of Marlborough and the southernmost winemaking region in the world, Central Otago and other countries such as Slovakia, Croatia, South Africa and Canada. If you seek out versatility, structure, age-ability and the romanticism of a wine telling the story of a place and time, these are the wines for you.
Be brave, and ask your local wine professional to recommend the perfect style for your needs. These wines will absolutely drink fresh and quenching right off the shelf, or will make a perfect addition to your cellar that will age beautifully for ten-plus years and develop oxidized, honey and tropical notes. Cheers!
Pro-tip: While dry styles of Riesling are considered “food wines”, the off-dry styles (not
dessert-sweet), pair extremely well with spicy dishes such as Chinese and Indian cuisine. Sommeliers also call the off-dry versions “patio pounders” because the styles with a bit of sweetness tend to be significantly lower in alcohol, often 8-10%.
By Anthony Schlotzhauer – OTL Wine Editor