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  • 02 May 2020
  • Grapes and Regions

Riesling: The Shapeshifter Grape


Known for its versatility, vibrancy and its particular capacity for translating terroir, Riesling has long been considered one of the finest white wine grapes in the world. 

Riesling has been poured for kings and queens since the 1400s - and likely long before. It hasn’t always had the easiest ride in modern times, however, namely due to a single giant blue nun, who threatened to pull the red carpet out from beneath Riesling’s feet.   

We have lost the precise timings of the arrival of old grape varieties, due to the obvious reason of lacking historical documentation. Sadly many of the references of planting, vine breeding and propagation will have been lost over time (or never even recorded in the first place - parchment and ink was very expensive). However, we know for a fact that Riesling was a well-established grape variety by 1435, as the cellar documentation of Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim, in the Rheingau wine region, tells us that six Riesling vines were purchased for 22 solidi. It was first mentioned in Alsace only a few decades later, in 1477, when the quality of the wines produced from “Rissling” was praised by Duke René of Lorraine.

It’s likely we’ll never know whether the variety originated on what is now either French or German soil, but what is certain is that it became the jewel in Germany’s crown; it spread with rapid speed throughout the German wine growing regions in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The Mosel, Germany

Wachau, Austria

At some stage during this time, Riesling also settled on Austrian soils, where today it has become particularly famous in the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage region. Some Austrians still argue that Riesling originated in Austria, and was named after the river Ritzling. However, as there are no reports of the variety being grown there as far back as the reports in Germany and Alsace, this is unlikely.  

By the turn of the 19th century, Riesling had become known as one of the finest white wines in the world, and commanded a price tag to match its reputation. Riesling had become the most expensive white wine to buy. 

Not long after, Riesling cuttings were exported to Australia in the 1830s, which is often considered the variety’s second home in the “New World,” as it found fame in Clare Valley and Eden Valley. It has also found success in New Zealand, the US (notably the Finger Lakes) and Canada; its reputation has been noted not just in Europe, but worldwide.

The Rheingau: Riesling's birthplace?

From the Nectar of Kings, to Sweet Plonk, to Sommelier Stardom  

Throughout its meandering historical journey, Riesling has maintained a spot at the Top of the Pops: Grape Edition, but it also found a place at the very bottom; a place that would see bucketloads of Riesling sold worldwide, but which would also become its Achilles Heel. 

Firstly, and completely out of the hands of the growers, two world wars caused a massive decline in not just Riesling, but all vines grown in Germany. Secondly, after the second world war, cheap and sweet-ish Riesling production boomed, and the “blue bottle” became famous, particularly under the Blue Nun label. 

In the public eye, this almost made the Riesling name synonymous with the cheap stuff. However, the top producers of Riesling never stopped their tireless efforts, and slowly but surely, the reputation of Riesling started to see a rebirth. Wine professionals and sommeliers knew that Riesling could create something special. The reputation of the variety was given a helpful nudge by the US importer Terry Theise, who began importing top Riesling to the US in the 80s, and whose book Reading the Wines is to some extent a love poem to the variety and the soils on which it is grown. It became heralded by sommeliers who very much put it on the stage of fine wine, often with long pages of wine lists dedicated to the variety, such as the impressive list at Terroir NYC.

Today, it is revered worldwide, for many of the same reasons as its sibling, Gamay, but in a white guise: fresh, mineral, lower in alcohol and immensely drinkable. Perhaps most importantly of all, its acidic structure means that fine Riesling can age for decades; even centuries. 

Riesling in all its shapes, forms and sizes. The left will be used to produce dry white wine, the right very sweet. Photograph by Ralf Kaiser,

The Shapeshifter Variety

The variety is loved for many reasons: it naturally has high acidity, so always produces fresh styles, even if the style of wine is sweet. It is also less aromatic than other popular German varieties such as Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau, as it has less terpenes (these are naturally occurring compounds that give scents such as roses and blossom).  Instead of overtly floral or fruity characters, it expresses more of a sense of place and a sense of minerality, which makes it popular with wine geeks across the globe. Its capacity for expressing a certain stoniness means that it is often praised as a terroir translator: the wine produced from one vineyard will taste entirely different from the wine produced from its neighbouring vineyard.

Little Farm Riesling vines in the Similkameen Valley, British Columbia, Canada

Riesling is very much at home in the more northerly segments of North America: in particular the Finger Lakes of New York State, where Bloomer Creek and Nathan Kendall produce compelling Rieslings that are entirely unique in character. The Rieslings of Bloomer are open, gentle, and ever so pretty: a vinous Riesling hug, whereas those of Nathan Kendall are zippy and bright, with tightwound electric citric energy. This is where the fun lies: Riesling takes on the personality and goals of the winemaker in question.

Meanwhile in Canada, it has found a home in British Columbia. The Little Farm winery, in the leading Canadian region for organic farming, the Similkameen Valley, has become known for their beautiful, naturally produced Rieslings that already show an exciting capacity for ageing. Farmer and winemaker Rhys Pender MW says,

“With the high levels of limestone in our Mulberry Tree Vineyard, I knew I wanted to plant Riesling as it shows the sense of place like no other grape. Farming organically was a must to let the wine be a true reflection of the vineyard and allow healthy grapes that can be turned into wine with as little intervention as possible.”

Riesling is a shapeshifter: it is capable of producing some of the best dry wines in the world, and some of the best sweet and botrytis styles in the world, with every degree of sweetness on the sliding scale between bone dry and ice wine. However, this is both a blessing and a curse, and arguably us human beings didn’t help Riesling out when it needed us the most: perhaps another reason for its struggling mid-1900s reputation was the confusion over labelling laws. Consumers couldn’t figure out whether the wine they were purchasing would be dry or sweet, so they altogether discarded the option. This has been greatly helped, however, by a move towards clearer label marking, and dry styles in particular are multiplying globally. 

Helmut Dönnhoff

That said, the sweeter styles will always hold a place in the hearts of so many, and many argue there can be no competition between the two styles: each is its own entity.

Helmut Dönnhoff, one of the most famous Riesling producers in the world, produces both styles, but it is arguably his off-dry and sweeter styles that have stolen the hearts of so many. He says,

“I always look for the talent of the vineyard, and it’s my job to make the best wine which the land is capable of. I have two children in my cellar: the dry and the sweet wines, but these children come from the vineyards themselves.”

Frozen Nectar

Helmut Dönnhoff feels that his vineyard, Brücke, is particularly gifted when it comes to ice wine (eiswein in German). Riesling is particularly famous for this slightly bizarre, ancient style of wine that is a true labour of love: grapes are left on the vine throughout autumn and well into winter, sometimes into the next year, until the first frost of -7°C occurs. With global warming, this is becoming rarer and rarer, as sometimes these temperatures no longer arrive. The grapes, once harvested, are crushed frozen to obtain the juice. The water in the berries remains frozen, which results in an incredibly concentrated sweet wine. It typically takes many months to ferment an ice wine, and the process eventually stops when the yeasts can no longer eat more sugar; thus it often creates wines that are lower in alcohol.

Bone Dry 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, dry Riesling has commonly been made in a certain style: crisp, lean and often with a pretty hefty dose of sulphur. These wines will always find a home with the people who like this style: they are the carefully tailored suits of the wine world. However, for a growing number of wine drinkers interested in the flared trousers or denim jacket versions of Riesling, there was a missing link...

… until the wines of now-iconic growers such as Jean-Pierre Frick and Christian Binner in Alsace, and Rudolf & Rita Trossen and Thorsten Melsheimer developed a reputation. These were growers who weren’t afraid of sticking to their beliefs of biodynamic farming and winemaking, and creating styles that weren’t necessarily always ones that “fit the mould.” They were also growers who would step away from the sulphur bag from time to time; trying out less invasive winemaking techniques.   

Rudolf Trossen, Mosel, Germany

Jean-Pierre Frick, Alsace, France

Riesling grapes destined for pétnat at Melsheimer, in the Mosel

Riesling with Bubbles

Sparkling Riesling is known as Sekt in Germany and Austria. Due to its natural high acidity, the grape variety has always been a contender for traditional method sparkling wines, and the likes of old vintages of Peter Lauer prove the variety's capacity for phenomenal ageworthy fizz. Over the course of the past ten years, Mosel winemaker Thorsten Melsheimer of the Mosel has become well-known for his pét-nats made from the variety. 

He had been quietly studying how to create a sparkling wine without using the sugar and lab-cultured yeasts usually required by the traditional method. He says,

"My idea was to get rid of the sugar and the added yeast and to be able to say: I stand here as a producer, and the only thing I've used in my cellar to make this wine are my grapes. That's all! So when people asked me if I make pétnat, I said, wow... yes, I already have this in my cellar as an experiment!"

The Mullay-Hofberg site of the Lower Middle Mosel, Germany

Mosel Melsheimer goat: working with animals is at the core of biodynamic beliefs

Jas Swan: proud new owner of Riesling grapes

The Future of Riesling

Another reason for its slow boom is an ageing generation of German growers and a lack of interest from the youth. The Mosel, for example, is notoriously difficult to farm due to its steep slopes. Working here is like training for the Wine Olympics: you might attain greatness but there will be backbreaking work along the way. 

Thankfully, there are some bright souls who are moving into the wine producing regions, realising the potential for the variety. Among them is Jas Swan, who has just released her first vintage under her label Katla Wines. For her, Riesling is a dream variety for natural winemaking methods. She says,

“I was amazed the other day when I tasted a bottle that had been open for over five weeks, and it was just as good! That’s the awesome thing about Riesling: it’s a badass grape variety, but it’s easy for a beginner to work with. It has such low pH, and with that comes a certain stability which the wine will gain - let alone the elegance and the pretty aromas that go along with it!”

The biggest hurdle for Riesling in the future is the hurdle facing a plethora of other grape varieties: global warming. In the Mosel, in just one generation, grapes are now harvested at the start of September whereas they used to be harvested in mid October. It’s the same in Australia: in the 80s, Riesling was harvested in mid-April, whereas now they are harvested at the end of February, almost two months earlier. It might be unsettling, but for now Riesling isn’t in fear of going anywhere. This is an all-rounder grape variety that is capable of so much; the straight-A student at school who excelled in maths as well as literature. As Rudolf Trossen says, 

“Riesling can do so much. People wouldn’t want every wine to be made in the same way. We are successful in the way that the English football hero, Sir Stanley Matthews said, “never change a winning team.” I think he was a wise man, so we will continue doing what we do.”



Thank you to Anne Krebiehl MW for this fantastic Grape Gallery:


Want to find out what makes Riesling so special by tasting Jean-Pierre Frick's iconic Steinert Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace?

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