Wine Varietals

Riesling

By Georgia Spanos

When it comes to a wine with as much to offer as riesling has, the hardest part is choosing where to start. If you enjoy bright, aromatic and lifted white wines, riesling is an all-round winner. With the many styles of riesling available from a range of regions, there’s a bottle to meet everyone’s preference.

Riesling can be made into a range of styles, from dry and off-dry to sweeter examples.  Some producers even include a sweetness scale on labels to help communicate the complexities of the variety. Riesling is a wonderfully versatile wine, showing vibrant lemon and lime flavours, as well as the stone fruits of summer. With age, riesling can mellow into a rich, honeyed, luscious wine. It’s an all-round pleasing wine with varying styles to accommodate all.

Go to section: Australian riesling regions | Riesling characteristics | International regions | History of riesling | Pairing with food | Choosing glassware | Serving temperature

Riesling

AUSTRALIAN RIESLING REGIONS:

While riesling is adaptable and grown in various conditions around the world, it prefers a cooler environment for producing elegant examples. In Australia, the Clare and Eden Valleys have long been synonymous with riesling. Victoria's Henty wine region also makes a coveted style, Western Australia’s Great Southern is producing some fine examples and the quality of the Canberra District is rising.

CLARE VALLEY

Clare Valley is, in the words of James Halliday, "the monarch of Australia’s riesling regions". It makes fine rieslings thanks to the rich fertile soils and specific land make-up. The most widely celebrated rieslings from the Clare Valley are on the drier side, and also named some of the best in the world. Depth in flavour is also renowned with exotic citrus fruits and fresh apples balancing the natural acidity.

EDEN VALLEY

As well as producing quality chardonnay among its whites, the Eden Valley also produces excellent riesling. The region honours the importance of this grape, taking delicate care of their riesling vines (which are some of the oldest in the world). Riesling from the Eden Valley produces wines of great intensity, showing lime juice and orange blossoms. Aged styles are favoured for their marmalade and honey notes.

HENTY WINE REGION

Henty region rieslings are elegant in style, with fine natural acidity. Excellent dessert wines are also made in the area, which include riesling varieties. The region sits at the far south-west corner of Victoria, and its volcanic soil and cool ocean breeze makes fruitful and aromatic riesling.

CANBERRA DISTRICT

This young region of Australia enjoys extreme climates, and is perfect for grape growing; a cool drop in temperatures at night soothes a long day’s bake in the sun. Riesling varieties from the Canberra District are dry, crisp and complex. 

GREAT SOUTHERN

The Great Southern wine region is widely recognised for its ideal fruiting environments. It’s cool climate produces fascinating examples of riesling that stand tall next to those of the Eden and Clare Valleys, of South Australia. Riesling grapes age wonderfully in this region, with the younger varieties giving citrus notes that are herbaceous, too.

RIESLING CHARACTERISTICS:

Australian rieslings tend to be steely, dry wines with stunning citrus flavours, where as Europe varieties are rich and textural, with varying degrees of sweetness. 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 below graph). It ranges upwards through kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and "eiswein off to one side" as James Halliday notes. Eiswein is also known as ice wine and uses frozen grapes within its production, retaining the fruit's natural sugar.

Riesling

Riesling wines range from pale, almost white in colour to bright, straw green and deep, yellow gold. It’s technically a white grape, but often at times leans towards pink or light red. Most of the time, it’s a green grape, with pink spots alike to freckles.

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

INTERNATIONAL RIESLING REGIONS:

The world’s most referenced riesling regions are Austria, Alsace in France, and the Mosel Valley in Germany. Other places worth a footing are the United States (in particular the Finger Lakes, California and Washington State) and New Zealand (with a small-but-prosperous production thanks to ideal growing conditions).

GERMANY

James Halliday says that as well as being the ancestral home of riesling, Germany "also has the world’s largest planting of the variety." He also says that "it is the dominant variety in Germany" noting that "the style varies greatly over the principal regions: the Rheingau, Pflaz, Rheinhessen, Nahe, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Wurttemberg."

HISTORY OF RIESLING:

Riesling 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).

PAIRING WITH FOOD:

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 them an 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 sticky styles (we’ll cover these ahead), which also work well with fruity desserts.

CHOOSING GLASSWARE:

A typical riesling glass uses a smallish bowl (in both width and height) for a fairly small capacity. This is to direct the wine to the back of the mouth, to not overwhelm.

SERVING TEMPERATURE:

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.