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25 May 2024 | Randy Kemner


If you think about Riesling among the great white wine varieties grown in the world, it seems to check all the "great wine" boxes:  Deliciousness, check.  Balance, check.  Age-ability, check.  Reflects terroir, check.  Great with food, check. Historical significance, check.  

So what is it about drinking this particular crisp white wine that doesn't require oak enhancement that tastes so darn refreshing, full of appley goodness and fruity minerality, that people flat-out reject?  Up until the mid-1980s, Riesling was hugely popular in the U.S.  Most California wineries made Riesling.  And these wines were sought after and enjoyed.

At the risk of sounding like grandpa extolling the good old days, I'll say it just once:  there was a time in my adult lifetime when Rieslings, particularly from Germany, commanded higher prices than Bordeaux, the most dominant of all red wines.  What did wine connoisseurs then know what we fail to grasp now about this noble white wine variety?

What happened?

I suspect Riesling fell victim of its own popularity, with oceans of inferior examples flooding our market until the public couldn't tell the good from the bad, a similar story that tarnished the reputations of Merlot, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, anything from Australia and most recently, rose wine.

Riesling could be sweet, dry as the Sahara and everything in-between and be perfectly balanced and brilliant at each stage of ripeness.  Ask Chardonnay to do that kind of gymnastics.

Riesling is grown in Austria, Alsace, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and of course, Germany where it achieves its greatest acclaim.

And then there is the "sweetness" thing.  Riesling's fruity character will often fool people into thinking a wine is sweet when it has zero sugar content: a dry wine, or as the Germans call it, trocken.

I've always suggested people think of Riesling not as an alcoholic beverage, but as fruit in liquid form (grapes, after all).  Why should enjoying a fresh-tasting, lower alcohol, fruity wine be any different than enjoying a perfectly ripe strawberry or peach?  Just because it is drunk instead of chewed?  It seems like its a cultural taboo to give in to our innate attraction to sweet things when it is wine, but why?  If you enjoy the taste of Riesling when you first start to drink wine, why wouldn't you enjoy it now after countless Muscadets, Albarinos, Chablis and Chardonnays have "matured" your palate?

Misplaced snobbery, I'd say.  Riesling is inferior to what, Turning Leaf Chardonnay?

Instead of me telling you any further what I think of Riesling, let me share what others have said about this noblest of white wine grapes:

“All experts agree that the finest German wines are of astonishing quality, quite possibly the best in the world…they are light, refreshing, easy to drink, fruity, fragrant, unfailingly agreeable.”—Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine

“It is unfortunate that current wine fashion does not sing the praises of German wines as loudly as they deserve, but fashions come and go.  For the true wine lover, the wines of Germany hold a long-lasting attraction.”— Steven Kolpan, Bran H. Smith, Michael A. Weiss, Exploring Wine

“I'd urge you to try German Riesling because it's delicious, but I fear you'll be more impressed if I tell you it's cutting-edge.  That, after all, is what we want to know-- what's now and happening.” Jay McInerney, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine

“Wine made from Riesling is quite unlike any other. It is generally light in alcohol, refreshingly high in fruity natural, has the ability to transmit the character of a place through its extract and unique aroma and is capable of ageing for decades in bottle. Riesling is a star and, as you may discern, one of my great wine heroes.”—Jancis Robinson

“The wines of Germany are the easiest on earth to enjoy.  They are also the hardest to understand.—Stuart Pigott, The Wine Atlas of Germany

"With its mouth-wateringly crisp, floral, bosky flavors and racy, green apple and citrus fruit, German Riesling is summer in a glass. Apart from the sheer, aromatic, summery drinkability of all but the sweetest German Rieslings, another huge plus of this wine is its food-friendly qualities. Spicy Asian food, curry, sushi, sauced seafood: difficult dishes shine, care of the unoaked balance between natural fruit sweetness and acidity. "--Jane MacQuitty, The Times (UK)

“Riesling is the great vine variety of Germany and could claim to be the finest white grape variety in the world on the basis of the longevity of its wines and their ability to transmit the characteristics of a vineyard without losing Riesling’s own inimitable style”—Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine

“Riesling is like a great orchestra playing quietly.”—Helmut Donhoff, Winemaker, Donhoff

"German Rieslings are among the best in the world. Don’t think sickly warm German hock; think beautiful bright white perfection"--Jane Clare, Daily Post (Wales) (UK)

“Sweetness belongs in the Mosel wine like the bubbles belong in the Champagne.”—Nik Weiss, Winemaker, St. Urbans-Hof

"Since there is an abundance of fine dry Rieslings in Alsace and Austria, not to mention Australia and New Zealand, it is not clear what is to be gained by sacrificing the very features that have made German Rieslings so distinctive.  In a laudable desire to overcome the sins of the past - the lake of undistinguished sugar water - which have so polluted the name of German wine until recent years, German growers have, it seems to me, overcompensated by lurching from one extreme to the other, a feature of the German character mockingly known as Hundertfünfzigprozentigkeit. It will require sane voices from beyond Germany's borders to point out the need for a proper balance to be struck - the oenological equivalent of the vinous balance between fruit and acidity which remains the hallmark of German Riesling, the world's greatest white wine."--Jancis Robinson

"In the spring this writer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Riesling. Nothing else refreshes or lingers so scentedly in the nostrils, and no other grape runs the gamut from mouth-wateringly bone dry to lusciously sweet. The German grape is perhaps the only known, great, non-French white grape"--Anthony Rose, The Independent (UK)

"German wines made from the Riesling grape variety are especially good with spicier Chinese dishes but are often overlooked."--Tim Worth , Derby Telegraph (UK)

“Germany’s wines are the most misunderstood in the world.  Her best vineyards lie as far north as grapes can be persuaded to ripen…All in all their chances of giving the world’s best white wine look slim.  And yet…they do, and stamp it with a racy elegance that no-one, anywhere, can imitate.”—Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine

"Why drink Riesling? Answer: It tastes good!  To some it’s the noblest of all white grapes."--Stephen Barrett, Plymouth Herald (UK)

After all this, why aren’t we all drinking more wines made from Riesling? 

What’s holding us back?

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