Dry Riesling: a Classic but Popular Style of Wine

Rethinking this classic grape

Dry Riesling is a popular choice among wine drinkers
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Riesling selections are notoriously difficult to shop for due to their varied styles and labeling laws that obfuscate what lies in the bottle. Will it be sweet or dry? What does Trockenbeerenauslese mean, anyway? The familiar blue bottles may remind drinkers of the sticky, sweet wines they first encountered as inexperienced drinkers, and as such, it is often a category that casual wine lovers overlook when shopping for their next bottle. Riesling is deep and diverse, which makes this particularly multi-faceted grape a favorite among wine professionals.

Riesling is produced all around the world, but the most significant and well-known places of origin are Germany, Austria, Alsace in France, the United States, South Africa, and Australia. Germany is known as the kingdom of Riesling, and its blue slate soils surely do produce some of the greatest benchmarks for Riesling the world-over. There are more styles of German Riesling available in today’s markets than ever before, but due to the somewhat complex German labeling, it can make this category difficult to shop for. Germany also produces some of the widest arrays of Riesling styles, adding still to that difficulty.

What is Dry Riesling?

Riesling as a grape may be fermented to many levels of sweetness or dryness. Depending on when the fruit is harvested in the season, different levels of fermentable sugar may be found in the grapes, leading to different levels of alcohol, as well as levels of residual sugar. Technically, dry Riesling is defined by the finished wine containing less than 9 grams per liter of residual sugar. The fermentation process creating alcohol has converted the vast majority of sugar in the grape juice into alcohol, leaving behind the rich, bright, and crisp flavors of Riesling without any heavy, palate-saturating sugars. 

The greatness to dry Riesling is its versatility with pairing applications and its grippingly high acid levels. Dry Riesling is a stellar pairing alongside an array of spicy or fried foods, balancing complex food flavors with its rich, layered fruit and mineral profile. The racy acid helps clear away the previous bite of food and make the drinker salivate for more, and the long, crisp finish refreshes the palate well after the wine has been swallowed. All in all, dry Riesling is a great category for white wine lovers, especially when understanding how to spot these wonderful wines.

Sweet and Dry Riesling

A quick rule of thumb when selecting a dry Riesling is to look for the Alcohol By Volume (ABV) percentage on the bottle. Although there are a handful of exceptions, if the ABV of the bottle is below 9%, it is safe to assume the wine in the bottle is sweet. If the ABV reads between 10 to 11%, it is safe to assume there is some residual sugar, but the wine should be considered half-sweet and may taste dry due to the crispy acid of the Riesling grape. If the ABV on the bottle clocks in over 11% it is a dry Riesling. In recent years, the International Riesling Foundation has begun promoting the use of its published dryness scale to aid wine buyers in their selections.

German Dry Riesling

Several wine-producing members of the foundation have implemented the scale on their labels. When exploring the depths of German Riesling, look for the term "Trocken," which means dry. The association of quality wine producers in Germany called the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) employs the term "Grosses Gewächs" to signify its high-quality dry wines. The stylized symbol of a grape cluster framed by the letters "G G" is a sure signal of a high-quality, delightfully dry German wine.

American Dry Riesling

A comfortable place to begin exploring dry Riesling is in the wines from the states of Washington and Oregon. Although the wines have varying degrees of sweetness there as well, the vast majority of Riesling bottled from wineries in these areas is of the drier style. Plus, the labels are in English, making it much more comfortable to shop for the average wine consumer. Washington began producing Riesling in the late 1960s and is currently the largest American area producing the grape. Oregon has increasingly begun planting more Riesling in its vineyards alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the majority of plantings occurring at the northern end of the Willamette valley near the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge.

Dry Riesling From France, Austria, and the Rest of the World

Similarly, there are several European regions that reliably produce dry forms of the Riesling grape and can be expected to deliver the anticipated style with confidence. The subregion of Alsace in France almost exclusively produces dry versions of the grape. Alsatian Riesling is a hybrid of the German grape growing tradition with the dry profile of winemaking preferred by the French. Although in Austria, Riesling takes a back seat to the popular Gruner-Veltliner grape in terms of the scale of production, these wines achieve great complexity and depth and are almost exclusively dry. 

As the versatility and popularity of the Riesling grape begins to grow, even more wine regions are growing and promoting the wine. South Africa and Australia dominate production in the southern hemisphere with delightfully dry versions of Riesling making their way to increasingly international markets. Emerging areas like British Columbia, New York, and Idaho have also begun to emulate the dry style of the wine successful in other more established wine-producing regions.