When it comes to a wine with as much to offer as riesling has, the hardest part is choosing where to start…
You can find a style for every occasion, from Australia’s steely, dry riesling wines with stunning citrus flavours, to Europe’s rich, textural riesling wines with varying degrees of sweetness.
With crisp acidity, it often means riesling will last a long time in the cellar. This element adds even more diversity to the styles you can find, with maturation building complexity and imparting a whole string of secondary and tertiary characteristics.
When Grosset, a famed producer of Australian riesling, was awarded James Halliday’s Best Value Winery of the Year, some people were confused. $60 for a bottle of Grosset Polish Hill Riesling might not immediately scream “value”, but if you compare that to the cost of the best German rieslings [Dr Loosen’s Erdener Pralat Riesling is around $180 a bottle, for example] it’s a veritable bargain. And while the Clare Valley’s Grosset is an iconic winery with higher prices, most Australian rieslings are available for $30 or less. To further emphasise the great value found in Australian riesling, the only white wine James has ever awarded a 99-point score is Duke’s Magpie Hill Reserve Riesling, which is priced at $35. We’ll say “cheers” to that.
The diversity mentioned above is key, meaning you can find the right kind of riesling to match your menu or dish. The refreshing flavours of a young Australian riesling will make a perfect pairing with anything you’d serve with a squeeze of lemon or lime: seafood being a classic example. Off-dry styles are great with salt and spice, the combination of sugar, acid and a lower percentage of alcohol in the wine making it the ideal match to a rich, creamy curry or a flavour-packed stir-fry. Aged examples are a nice match to full-flavoured cheeses, as are botrytis riesling, eiswein and other sweet styles (we’ll cover these ahead), which also work well with fruity desserts.
The history of riesling
While Germany is considered to be the 'home' of riesling, it originated in the Rhine River region that crosses both Germany and France's Alsace, and it was first documented as far back as the 15th century. It’s been in Australia since the beginning of its wine-growing history, in the early 19th century, and has had various peaks (in the 1960s and 70s, and starting to rise again now) and troughs (in the early days when the riesling name was taken for cheap white blends that often included none of the wine, and in the 90s when chardonnay prevailed).
Where is riesling produced?
While riesling is adaptable and grown in various conditions around the world, it prefers a cooler environment for producing elegant examples. This goes a long way to explaining the world’s most referenced riesling regions: Austria, Alsace in France, the Mosel Valley in Germany, and the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia.
The latter produces cracking examples, Victoria's Henty makes a coveted style and the quality of the Canberra District has long been overlooked. Other places with a footing are the United States (in particular the Finger Lakes, California and Washington State) and our mates across the ditch in New Zealand (with a small-but-prosperous production thanks to ideal growing conditions).
Understanding the many styles of riesling wine
The obvious categories here might be “dry”, “off-dry” and “sweet”, but riesling is so nuanced that this breakdown doesn’t do it justice. Perhaps that’s why the Germans came up with their exacting riesling scale, dividing the variety into six styles of ripeness, plus various other classifications to do with quality, site and residual sugar (see more below).
Add to that choices made in the winery, such as extended skin contact and lees ageing, and there are so many possibilities. You can find sparkling rieslings. Mature or “reserve” rieslings. Single-site rieslings and those that combine grapes from several places. It is uncommon, however, to find riesling in blends, as it has the fruit flavour and framework to stand up on its own. There are a handful of producers that work with the varietal in blends, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
In spite of the many ways you could go with riesling, the most popular path is to convey the vibrancy and purity that this white grape is naturally privileged to. Riesling is easily influenced by its environment. The soils it’s planted in, the climates it exists in and the times at which it’s picked are especially apparent in resulting wines; generally, winemakers try as best they can not to interfere with that expression.
Riesling wines in Australia are typically dry, but some wineries choose to include sweet rieslings in their ranges. The difference between sweet and dry can be care of picking time (late-picked riesling will be sweeter), cool and wet conditions resulting in noble rot/botrytis (a fungus that results in a palatable sweetness, but an unpalatable loss of crops), or by arresting fermentation (meaning less alcohol and more fruit sweetness).
German riesling styles (less ripe to very ripe)
Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (or BA), Trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA), Eiswein.
Riesling tasting characteristics
Riesling wines range from pale, almost white in colour to bright, straw green and deep, yellow gold. This high acid wine displays zesty, juicy flavours of lemon, lime and tart Granny Smith apples when it is less ripe, and richer, warmer flavours such as apricot, pineapple and ginger as it increases in sweetness. As it ages and mellows out, it begins to show nutty, toasty, honeyed characteristics. On the nose, citrus is coupled with blossoms and spice. Riesling alcohol levels are low to medium, around 8% to 13% (sweeter styles typically sit at the lower end of the spectrum and drier styles higher), making it a refreshing, easy-to reach-for wine.
Australian rieslings to try: dry and smashable (Wines by KT Churinga Vineyard Watervale Riesling), dry and serious (Pikes ‘The Merle’ Clare Valley Riesling), off-dry (Grosset Alea Clare Valley Riesling), sweet (Bellarmine Pemberton Riesling Select), very sweet (Josef Chromy Botrytis Riesling), aged (Crawford River Museum Release Riesling), quirky (Koerner Watervale Riesling).
What is the best temperature to enjoy riesling?
Riesling doesn’t need to be chilled to icy temperatures before drinking. A short stint in the fridge is fine for your standard dry riesling (7-8°C is about right), while sweeter styles should be enjoyed at around 10°C and aged riesling a couple of degrees warmer still.
What James Halliday has to say about riesling in Australia
Riesling's link with the  dates back at least to when Joseph Gilbert planted his Pewsey Vale vineyard, and quickly made its way to the nearby Clare Valley. These two regions stood above all others for more than 100 years, producing riesling that shared many flavour and texture characteristics: lime (a little more obvious in the Eden Valley), apple, talc and mineral, lightly browned toasty notes emerging with five to 10 years bottle age.
Within the last 20 or so years, the sub-regions of the Great Southern of Western Australia have established a deserved reputation for finely structured, elegant wines with wonderful length, sometimes shy when young, bursting into song after five years. The sub-regions are Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongurup.
Tasmania, too, produces high class rieslings, notable for their purity and intensity courtesy of their high natural acidity. Finally, there is the small and very cool Victorian region of Henty (once referred to as Drumborg) with exceptional riesling sharing many things in common with Tasmania.