Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Pleasures of Riesling

Riesling is one of the world's great white wines. Some say that Riesling even surpasses Chardonnay in greatness.  So, why is Riesling such a hard sell, lagging so far behind Chardonnay in sales? 


According to Drizly's sales data for the last 12 months, two California Chardonnays made the Top-10 white wines: Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve (8th) and Josh Cellars (10th).  Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio dominate Drizly's Top 10 list. There are no German Rieslings or other varietal Rieslings in the Top-10, but Drizly's does mention that Black Girl Magic California Riesling is one of the fastest growing white wines. 

An aside. The Black Girl Collection of wines is from the McBride Sisters Wine Company in Oakland, California.  McBride Sisters is a Black-owned wine company, started by half-sisters, one born and raised in Monterey, the other in New Zealand. They met in New York and soon realized they shared a love of wine, which led to forming the company.  

Drizly is an online marketplace for beer, wine, liquor and any beverage with alcohol. Drizly offers home delivery service.

There are numerous reasons why Riesling sales are slow. Despite the thousands of written (and spoken) words, practically guaranteeing Riesling's versatility from dry to sweet, consumers still consider Riesling only a sweet wine. 

The reason may be that too many American wine drinkers still talk dry but drink sweet. Or, perhaps it's because the U.S. market is still suffering from a hangover from when California and New York wineries cranked out oceans of white wine labeled "Riesling" that were likely made from anything but Riesling? 

Also obvious (at least to me) is the German wine industry has not marketed Riesling strong enough in the face of surging Chardonnay sales. Some sources claim that Riesling and German wine sales are on the rise and the German wine industry claims to be making more dry Rieslings with every new vintage.

So, perhaps a fresh look at Riesling, the grape and the wine, may encourage some readers to pass on Chardonnay long enough to enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Riesling: The Grape

Germany has the distinction of being the northern-most wine region in the Northern Hemisphere.  Riesling (Reece-ling), a cold weather variety benefits from this northern exposure and over time, Riesling vines have developed harder stems than other white varieties and that means a stronger chance of surviving a harsh winter.

Riesling is a low-alcohol grape that produces a high level of acidity and residual sugar. This combination allows winemakers to make a wide range of wines, from dry to sweet. When the world wine community was promoting dry while wines, and consumers were turning to Alsace for drier Rieslings, German Rieslings were off-dry or noticeably sweet.  

Concentrated sweetness

Wine marketers and consumers complained about the sweetness levels of German Rieslings, prompting German producers to counter with trocken (dry) Rieslings. This proved problematic for the American wine drinker as they rejected trocken Rieslings as unpleasant to drink, especially as an aperitif, which often did not include food.

At last count, there are 60 Riesling clones, all different from each other, although the differences are small. Mainly the clones vary in aromatics, from very subtle to a few clones so aromatic that they could easily be mistaken for a different grape, like Muscat. 

Riesling is an early ripening variety and when it is cultivated in warmer climates, like some parts of California and Australia, the grape loses much of its unique mineral and floral aroma and flavor characteristics, and the wines lose acidity and taste flat.  Where the climate is more temperate, like California's Anderson Valley, Riesling retains its crisp acidity and fruit salad flavors. 

Riesling: The Wine

Riesling does not take to oak, especially new oak and when it is aged in oak uprights, Riesling loses a lot of its charm.  Thus, stainless steel and Riesling is an ideal pairing.  Fermenting Riesling in stainless, brings out the grape's ample and attractive aromatics and flavors.  

Characteristic flavors of drier Rieslings are mineral, earthy, smoky, floral, green apple, even spice.  Riper wines lean more to stone fruits like peaches, apricots and pineapple, sometimes with a lime/citrus note. 

German Rieslings usually finish with alcohols between 10% to 12%, while those from warmer areas can register about 12%.  Rieslings have mouth-watering acidity, but when total acidity is low, the wine tastes a little flat and syrupy. 


The German system of quality for white wines, based on grape ripeness, is precise and worth knowing. At one end are Qba wines (quality wine from a specific region). The alcohol of Qba wines can be increased by the addition of sugar, known as chaptilization, named for the Frenchman who devised the procedure.  Chaptilization in German is susssreserve or "reserved sweetness." 

Above Qba are wines made from riper grapes known as pradikat (The steps, from driest to sweetest are: Kabinet, Spatlese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein (Ice Wine). The driest German wines are labeled trocken. The majority of pradikat wines are Kabinet and Spatlese.

Elsewhere, notably California and Australia, Rieslings are sold as varietal wines and may have a sweetness notation on the front or back label. However, despite efforts by some California wineries and wine writers to provide more information about residual sweetness, many wineries continue to bottle without it. 

Dry or sweet, German or Californian, select a style and enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Next Blog: Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

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