Riesling is one of the world’s most versatile grapes, capable of making styles from aridly dry to lusciously sweet, plus everything in between, and with a transparency that reflects where it was grown like few – if any – other grapes. Hailing from Germany, it’s equally embedded in France and Austria, while the style made famous in the Clare Valley that once defined Australian versions has now been joined by a multitude of expressions, and from right across the country.
Also known as
Riesling has a number of synonyms, but most are unlikely to make it to a wine label, with Rhine riesling an old-fashioned term that you’ll only likely find on older Australian bottles. There are, though, a few varieties, such as welschriesling, that contain the word riesling but are actually unrelated.
What riesling tastes like
A high-acid and aromatic variety, riesling is very versatile, producing wines up and down the ripeness scale. In leaner examples, lime and lemon are common descriptors, as can be green apple and floral notes. As riesling ripens, stone fruit flavours are not uncommon, while those flavours can extend into pineapple and mango, then also into even more exotic flavours when botrytis is present, with honey, toast and ginger sometimes accenting. Riesling is also often associated with a petroleum/kerosene character as it ages, though this is less common these days. A function of temperature, lack of water during the growing season and sunburn on the grape skins, it is increasingly seen as undesirable.
In the vineyard
Riesling is an early ripening variety that favours cooler conditions, with it becoming overripe quickly under warm conditions, while the skins will tend to also thicken, making the wines potentially coarse on the palate. Given long, slow ripening, the wines can be delicate and yet powerful, so it’s no surprise that some of the world’s finest examples come from cold regions and are grown on terraces on steep slopes that maximise exposure to the sun – marginal viticulture walking a fine line to greatness. Indeed, riesling is a grape that is often associated with struggle, with some of the best vines planted to rocky, barren sites. The rewards of that struggle are conveying the signature of site through the grape’s legendary transparency.
Riesling can be picked young, or left out in the vineyard to develop richer character or be infected with botrytis to develop luscious, exotic flavours and lose water, which concentrates the flavours, sugars and acid. In the winery, the grapes can be pressed very lightly or left in contact with the skins. Warmer conditions and thicker skins generally mean pressing less is better (common in the Clare and Eden Valleys), while in places like Germany, short skin contact is common to extract more flavour. In Australia, cold fermentation with neutral, cultured yeast is standard practice, but some producers are using neutral wooden vessels and ambient yeast in the way they traditionally do in Germany, Austria and France. From there, whether a wine is sweet or dry largely depends on the winemaker deciding to arrest the ferment – leaving residual sugar – or letting it continue to dryness. Riesling is also made into sparkling wine in Germany, called Sekt, with a few Australian examples, too.
Where is riesling grown?
Riesling is synonymous with Germany for good reason. Originating in the Rhine region, riesling has travelled to some notable destinations and been embedded in their cultures for centuries, but nowhere does it dominate the wine-drinking psyche like it does in Germany. Having said that, riesling doesn’t command as much of the total planting like shiraz does here – 30 per cent to 21 per cent of riesling in Germany – but it makes essentially all of its most celebrated wines, is the most high-profile grape in all of its most celebrated regions – Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Pfalz… – and is likely the only grape that most wine drinkers would associate with the country.
Riesling around the world
Riesling has also established strongholds in Alsace in France, which feels far more Germanic than it does French, as well as Austria, where the wines of the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal have a colossal reputation that belies their tiny output of the grape – grüner veltliner is king in Austria. Riesling is notably grown in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as in Italy, primarily in Alto Adige, although there is increasingly interest for the grape in some of the loftier vineyards in Piedmont, which are too cold for nebbiolo et al. New York State’s Finger Lakes is perhaps the most famous territory for the grape in the US, though Washington State is catching up, while in Canada it goes to making most of their legendary ice wine, principally in Ontario and Niagara. New Zealand has also established itself as a New World force for the grape, mainly on the South Island, with styles just as likely to be off-dry or sweet as they are dry.
Riesling in Australia
Riesling has long been a revered grape in this country, but much of that appreciation of late has been from aficionados, rather than the wider drinking public, having surrendered the limelight to chardonnay when the ’80s rolled around. Apart from some notable exceptions (such as in the windswept cool of Victoria’s Henty), for many years, riesling predominantly came from the Clare Valley and to a lesser degree the Eden Valley – with a similar amount of bulk wine coming from the Riverina – and the perception of what riesling should taste like was influenced by those wines – limey, dry and somewhat austere. The total plantings for riesling were never likely to be able to support the often touted riesling renaissance, but over the last couple of decades there has been meaningful development of thoughtful plantings and winemaking that have made riesling a compelling category. Tasmania has long been seen as hallowed ground for the grape, and that potential is being realised in dramatic fashion, with both classically dry wines and those that look to Germany for inspiration. While the traditional South Australian hunting grounds are still going strong, the national acreage for riesling has been dropping, but the variety for the drinker is very dynamic, with areas such as the Great Southern in Western Australia, the Canberra District, Orange, Mount Gambier and the Strathbogie Ranges all showing the grape in new and exciting lights.
Some of the best Australian riesling
Some of the icons
Castle Rock Estate
Some of the new wave
Dr Edge & Meadowbank
L’enclos du Tertre
Mewstone & Hughes & Hughes
Schmölzer & Brown
Wellington & Wolfe
Wines by KT