What Is Riesling Wine?

Glass of white wine
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Riesling is a wine grape with German origins that can be used to make white wine in a range of styles. From dry to sweet and light to medium-bodied, riesling often exhibits flavors of juicy citrus, fresh pineapple, and stone fruit like apricot. The easy-to-love white wine pairs well with a range of foods, offering a nice counterpoint to spicy food. Riesling has a low to average amount of alcohol, depending on the style.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Germany (Mosel, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Rheingau, Nahe), Austria, Australia, Alsace, California, Washington
  • Origin: Rheingau, Germany
  • Sweetness: Sweet to dry
  • Color: Pale to deep yellow
  • ABV: 9–13% 

Riesling vs. Sauvignon Blanc

Riesling and sauvignon blanc are both popular white wines that are made and enjoyed around the world. While both wines can exhibit flavors of green apple, stone fruit, and citrus, sauvignon blanc has distinctive herbaceous flavors like bell pepper and fresh grass. Originating in the South of France, sauvignon blanc is always made in a dry or off-dry style, while many rieslings are sweet. When pairing with food, sauvignon blanc can be substituted for a dry riesling, especially with poultry, fish, and vegetables.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Riesling wines can be highly aromatic with apple, peach, and pear at the forefront mixed with delicate floral undertones and often honey and spice on the nose. A hint of petroleum can sometimes be detected produced by a natural chemical compound called TDN. On the palate, riesling echoes the apple, pear, and peach along with citrus like lemon peel and lime and tropical fruit like ripe pineapple. Rieslings tend to pick up a noticeable minerality from their native soils, explaining why hints of slate or limestone can be exhibited.

Depending on the style of riesling, the white wine is high in acidity and low in tannins. Riesling can be made in varying degrees of sweetness, with dry options often available from the Alsace, Austria, Australia, New York, Germany (labeled as trocken for dry or halbtrocken for half-dry or off-dry). Sweet riesling is often made in California and in Germany (labeled as feinherb). If you're not sure, look for sweet or dry on the label.

How to Taste Wine

Follow a few simple steps when tasting wine to ensure you have the best possible experience:

  1. Look: Take a look at the wine, examining the color and the opacity through the glass.
  2. Smell: Swirl your glass for roughly 10 seconds and take a whiff. Then stick your nose into the wine glass for a good inhale, taking in your first impressions of the wine.
  3. Taste: Take a small sip and let it roll around in your mouth. Note the sugar, acidity, tannins, and alcohol content when first tasting. Move on to tasting notes (fruit, spice, wood) and finally the finish.

Grapes and Wine Regions

While historically associated most intimately with Germany, riesling's relative receptivity to a range of growing conditions make it a natural choice for international plantings. Germany's Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz regions are first stops on any riesling tasting tour, but bone-dry styles also prevail in Alsace, France, and Austria. Australia's Clare and Eden Valleys as well as California, Washington, and New York State also grow a considerable amount of riesling.

The white grape prefers cooler climates and has a spring and summer growing season with a late harvest in the fall. In Germany, the Old World grape is graded based on how ripe it is at harvest. From least ripe to the ripest, German rieslings are labeled as kabinettspätleseauslesebeerenauslese, eiswein and trockenbeerenauslese.

Food Pairings

With riesling's bright acidity to balance any sweetness, it makes the wine easy to pair with a variety of foods. Sweet rieslings are an especially good pairing for spicy foods like Indian curries, Thai dishes, and more. Lighter meats like turkey, chicken, pork, and shellfish like crab legs also get along nicely with the vibrant wine. Try serving with delicate cheeses like brie and a wide range of vegetable dishes like fresh green salads.

Serve riesling chilled in a white wine glass. Because of the wine's acidity, high-quality bottles can be cellared for many years.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Riesling is widely available at supermarkets, wine shops, and liquor stores. Look for a section dedicated to the wine along with other popular white wines. Quality options from around the world are available starting at $15. If you can't find dry riesling, try substituting a bottle of sauvignon blanc.

When shopping for riesling, you will find yourself with plenty of options. These winemakers produce consistently good bottles:

  • Fritz Haag
  • Trimbach
  • Jim Barry
  • Riposte
  • Josmeyer
  • Smith-Madrone
  • Hermann J. Wiemer
  • JJ Prum
  • Hugel
  • Poet's Leap