Riesling. For some people, Riesling sounds almost intimidating, and there are few reasons for that. First, there is a misconception that all Riesling is sweet (and indeed for many years Riesling was known and treasured for its sweetness). Second, It’s complicated. There is a language barrier (try to say Trokenbeerenauslese or Anbaugebiet), there are several quality levels and style diversity that aren’t easy to figure out for an average consumer. But things are changing. Most Riesling wines around the world are dry or off-dry, and sweet Riesling is more the exception. As for the quality system and the stylistic diversity, Germans have done a great job organizing these two aspects, and have simplified the labeling system, so it is easier to understand the regional differences.
Germany’s cool climate and long growing season make it exceptionally suitable for white grape varieties, of which Riesling is the second most popular one after Muller-Thurgau (Muller-Thurgau is a result of crossing the Riesling with another popular German grape Sylvaner). It is regarded as late-ripening grape here and it requires to be planted on the most favored sites with good sun exposure.
5 Most important Riesling wine regions of Germany and regional diversity
There are 5 most important Riesling wine regions in Germany with most of the wine produced in the west of Germany, along the river Rhine and its tributaries.
Mosel – Saar – Ruwer – the region is characterized by cool northern continental climate. The best vineyards are located along the Moselle river where the heat from the sun can be maximized by reflection up from the water. The soil is dominated by slate which has ideal drainage for the region’s heavy rainfall. Terraced vineyards along the river are among the steepest in the world, so everything has to be done by hand. Riesling from the Mosel and its even cooler tributaries Saar and Ruwer is the most distinctive one: light, crisp, refreshing, delicate and relatively low in alcohol.
Rheingau – the region is sandwiched between the Rhein River and the forest. The trees protect the vineyards from the northern winds, keep in the heat and provide humidity during summer time creating perfect conditions for growing world-class Riesling. The slopes are somewhat less steep than in Mosel and flatten towards the river. Variety of soils creates wines of various character. Riesling from Rheingau has lots of flavor, acid, and typically more masculine than its equivalent from Mosel. Most of the top producers age their wines in oak to add flavor complexity and texture. Rheingau is also famous for its sweet style Riesling. (Rheingau. Photo credit www.germanwines.de)
Nahe – steep vineyard sites similar to Mosel, a wide variety of soil types which allows producing numerous wine styles. Riesling wines from Nahe are known for their finesse and a light spiciness. A lot of dry Rieslings here, as the temperature is mild, with lots of sunny days and low rainfall, allowing the grape to fully ripe and be vinified dry.
Rheinhessen – diversity of soils and microclimates, hence different wine styles, with best vineyards concentrated along the steep west bank of the Rhine (Rhine terraces). The wines of this region are often characterized as being soft, medium-bodied, with mild acidity, appealing nose, and great minerality. Easy to drink good-value Riesling.
Pfalz – the sunniest and the dryest wine region in Germany, protected by the mountains from cold and rain. The soil is mixed: sandstone, slate, basalt, limestone, each giving a distinctive note to the wines. Here wines are rich, full and silky.
Wine made of Riesling is generally light in alcohol, high in fruity natural acidity, has the ability to transmit terroir characteristics and is capable of aging for decades
Riesling Wine Characteristics
Color: Pale straw to deep yellow
Aromas and Flavors: Strong aromatics (citrus blossom, beeswax, honey, petrol, mineral) with flavors of lime, lemon, apple, honey, pear, pineapple. Less ripe versions tend toward citrus flavors, while riper versions lean toward tropical fruit.
Sweetness: sweetness depends on the ripeness of the grape (grapes harvested later produce sweeter wines) and the length of fermentation
Acidity: High acidity
Body: Light-bodied to Medium-bodied
Aging: Because of its natural complexity and high acidity Riesling can age longer than many other wines, red or white. Aged Riesling can possess stronger mineral flavors and petrol aromas.
Food Pairing: Sweeter Rieslings go exceptionally well with spicy Chinese or Thai food. Dry Rieslings are best to accompany seafood dishes with cream-based sauces.
Quality levels of German Riesling
Most of the wine that you are going to find in the United States will carry one of the following designations:
Landwein – slightly higher in quality than table wine
Qualitätswein (QbA)– quality wine
QbA wines often use following terms on their label to indicate the wine’s level of sweetness. In ascending order: Troken (dry), Halbtroken (half dry or slightly sweet), Feinherb (off-dry), Liebliche (sweet), süß or Süss (sweet +).
Prädikatswein (QmP) – quality wine with distinction (good stuff). Pradikatswein Riesling wines are traditionally sweet. Based on the ripeness of the grapes during harvest, they are classified as:
Kabinett – light, semi-dry wines made from normally ripened grapes. (Stone Fruit, High Acidity)
Spätlese – meaning “late harvest” – grapes that were picked after the normal harvest. Spätlese wines are usually sweeter than Kabinett. (Tropical Fruit, Honeycomb, High Acidity)
Auslese – meaning “select harvest” – the grapes were selectively picked from particularly ripe bunches. (Rich and Fruity, Honeyed aromas, High Acidity)
Beerenauslese – meaning “berry select harvest,” overripe grapes picked out individually to make rich dessert wines
Trockenbeernauslese – meaning “dry beery select harvest,” these wines are very rare as they are made of dry grapes, so they are more like raisins.
Eiswein – sweet, concentrated wine made from frozen grapes left on wine. (Read my article on Canadian Icewine – the same idea)
There is additional classification VDP (“Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter” ) based on where the wines are grown. Labeled as VDP Grosses Gewächs or GG (“great growth”) it indicates the highest quality typically associated with a single vineyard or small grape growing area.
Some Favorite Producers
Von Winning (Pfalz), Spreitzer (Rheingau), Leitz (Rheingau), Eva Frike (Rheingau), Schlossgut Diel (Nahe), Immich – Batterieberg (Mosel), Selbach -Oster (Mosel), Clemens Busch (Mosel), Peter Lauer (Saar)
Where to Buy
Convive Wines, Flatiron Wines & Spirits, Astor Wines, Leon & Son Wines, Chamber Street Wines
Great article on German wines! Clearer than my WSET textbook 🙏🏻
Thank you! Glad you found it useful. Riesling isn’t that complicated in the end. Any favorite producers out there?