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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Riesling

There are few grape varieties more fervently worshipped yet sorely misunderstood than Riesling.

The supreme shape shifter of the wine world, Riesling can be totally dry or lusciously sweet, still or sparkling. Its nose can be lavishly floral or stony and earthen. Its gloriously fruity, electric flavors can lend perceptions of sweetness despite zero residual sugar. Its extract can masquerade volume and texture far beyond its alcoholic footprint.

This multifaceted persona makes Riesling a darling of wine critics and sommeliers. For consumers, however, the lack of a singular, dependable identity can create confusion.

Riesling originates from the Rhine Valley region of Germany, where documented history of the wine exists as far back as 1435. Germany remains the most copious and heralded producer of the grape, but the variety has also flourished worldwide. Whether in France, Austria, Australia or the United States, Riesling is a conduit of terroir, translating effects of soil and climate into distinctive, delicious wines.

As an introduction to the diverse world of Riesling, organize a tasting from three categories: dry versus sweet, young versus old and Germany versus Washington.

As you compare each flight, look for classic aromas, flavors and textures. Does the nose suggest blossoms and peaches or smoke and stone? Is it bracingly tart like lime or green apple, or tropical and luscious like pineapple or mango? Is the palate dry or sweet?

We’ve outlined some suggestions to try. If you can’t find exact matches, ask your favorite retailer to recommend alternatives.

Chateau St. Michelle Riesling bottle
Chateau St. Michelle Riesling bottle / Photo Courtesy Chateau St. Michelle

Dry vs. Sweet Riesling

One of the biggest misconceptions about Riesling is that it’s always sweet. Yet dry styles are produced in every Riesling region worldwide. In areas like Rheinhessen or Franken in Germany, Alsace in France or throughout Austria, dry expressions of Riesling are the dominant style.

Many consumers eschew Riesling because they’re unsure whether a given bottle of Riesling will be sweet or dry.

To ease confusion, Riesling producers are increasingly labeling their wines dry, off dry, semisweet or sweet. In German-speaking regions, look for wines labeled trocken for dry wines, with residual sugar (RS) of less than 9 grams per liter (g/L). Feinherb or halbtrocken suggest small amounts of RS, typically 9–18 g/L.

Kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenausles and eiswein all indicate wines produced from late-harvest grapes with concentrated levels of sugar. Kabinett is typically off dry or semidry, but some producers use kabinett trocken to signify a dry wine produced from very ripe, late-harvest grapes.

Checking the alcohol by volume (abv) of a Riesling label is the easiest way to gauge sweetness regardless of origin. The higher the abv, the more sugar was converted to alcohol resulting in a drier wine. Typically, anything at or above 12% abv will taste dry. Anything lower than 11.5% abv will exhibit sweetness.

When comparing dry and sweeter styles, hone into whether the sweetness you perceive is derived from residual sugar, or if your palate is interpreting flavors of ripe peach, tangerine, honey or marmalade as sweetness. Remember, even dry wines with no residual sugar can be explosively fruity and even candied in flavor.

Dry vs. Sweet Riesling

Wine 1: Any Riesling labeled off dry (halbtrocken or feinherb), semidry (kabinett or spätlese) or sweet (auslese).

Wine 2: Any Riesling labeled dry (trocken).

Mosel Wine terracing
Mosel wine terraces in early spring / Getty

Young vs. Old Riesling

Due to a lack of tannins, most white wines aren’t known to withstand long times in the cellar. The best examples of Riesling, however, are solidly structured with bracing acidity and low pH, as well as flavor compounds and phenolics that develop brilliantly with age.

Tasted young, Riesling is among the most explosively aromatic of wines, profoundly floral and fruity, concentrated with zingy peach, apple or citrus flavors. With age, these primary characteristics shift towards preserved or dried fruit and flower, and savory nuances of caramel, candlewax and earth appear.

While acidity, alcohol and sugar levels remain constant, well-aged Riesling often gains textural richness and density. Sweeter styles may seem to shift drier on the palate as sugar molecules polymerize.

Of course, not all Riesling is meant to be aged. Most iterations, especially those below a $20 retail price threshold, are best enjoyed within 2–3 years of bottling, when their youthful perfume and juicy fruit flavors are at peak. But exceptionally well-made Rieslings, particularly those fermented and matured in traditional oak casks and stored correctly, can evolve marvelously for decades.

Not everyone has a stash of fine, aged Riesling in their cellars, but many restaurants and wine bars take pride in collections of older vintages, especially from classic regions in Germany and Austria as well as those from Alsace. Online auctions and wine shops specializing in mature wines often offer well-priced examples.

Compare a newly released Riesling with one with at least 5–10 years of age. The older the vintage, the more savory the wine will seem.

Young vs. Old Riesling

Wine 1: Newly released Riesling from Germany, Austria or Alsace.

Wine 2: Riesling from the same region and style with 5–10 years of age

Riesling Harvest at Hugel Vineyard, France
Marc-André Hugel (L) and his cousin Pierre Hugel at Hugel Family Vineyard, Riquewihr, France/ Getty

German vs. Washington Riesling

Riesling is known for its transparency of terroir—planted worldwide, it produces wines that are distinctly expressive of their soil, climate and growing conditions.

Whether sourced from the steep slate slopes of Mosel or the sandstone hills of Franken, German Riesling is the benchmark for the variety worldwide. German Riesling is fantastically diverse, sourced from an array of terroirs, and available at every price point and sweetness level.

German Riesling personifies the archetype of an Old World, cool-climate style of wine. Sourced primarily from the cooler, northernmost edge of marginality for traditional grape growing, German Riesling is often described as pristine in fruit, suggesting a spectrum of flavors from green apple and citrus to succulent peach and apricot. While its fruit profile varies depending on climate and the ripeness of grapes at harvest, German Riesling typically exhibits a raciness of acidity and penetrating minerality—a smokiness, stoniness or earthiness—that lends complexity to even the most basic bottlings.

Far from its European roots, Riesling production has thrived in the United States. Exceptional wines can be found throughout New York (particularly the Finger Lakes), California, Michigan and Oregon, but Washington is the nation’s largest Riesling producer.

Washington Riesling, particularly from the Columbia Valley, is known for boldly fruit-forward—often citrus and stone fruit—wines balanced by thirst-quenching acidity. As in Germany, Washington Riesling is sourced from a diversity of microclimates and terroirs, but generally ripened in hotter, drier growing conditions. While typically richer and rounder in fruit profile than German Riesling, they maintain a freshness of acidity due to cool evening temperatures.

Germany vs. Washington Riesling

Wine 1: There are few wines more classic and recognizable in style than a Mosel kabinett.

Wine 2: An off-dry Columbia Valley AVA Riesling.