History of Riesling
While Riesling is the junior member of the trinity of white wine grapes – behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – used to create quality white wine, it has long been established as a cornerstone white, appealing both to the seasoned palate and the novice wine drinker alike.
Its long history of cultivation has taken it from cloistered German monasteries to freshly established vineyards as far flung as Australia, China and Argentina. It has a notoriously temperamental flavour profile with the undeserved reputation of being mainly a dessert wine. Despite this, over the centuries it has been a coveted vine for producers and the wine drinking public.
The origins of Riesling are a bit of a mystery. There are written accounts of the vine as far back as the 1400s in Germany. Some experts believe that it descended from the nearly extinct Gouais blanc, which was commonly grown by peasants in the Middle Ages around the Rhine region.
No better example of how mysterious the origins of Riesling are is the debate around the extremely uncommon red variety of Riesling. It is sort of a chicken or egg story. The red-skinned version of Resiling is regarded as a mutation of white Riesling by some, while other experts have claimed that red Riesling is the ancestor of the white.
Riesling’s popularity was at its apex in Germany during the 19th century. The proceeding century was not so kind to the noble vine. As producers began experimenting with different varieties it was deposed as king of the German vineyard. Thankfully that trend is starting to reverse, with German winemakers promoting Riesling with a newly discovered pride. Today, it is overall the 20th most popular white wine in the world and one of the main whites grown in Germany.
What Food Does Riesling Suit?
Riesling’s high acidity and intensity make it an excellent pairing with spicy, sauce-heavy foods. It is a wonderful complement to South Asian curries and Thai stir-fry. It stands up well alongside strong flavoured cheese like aged gouda and cheddar, Monterey Jack, blue cheese and Havarti. But this is just in general. The wide flavour profile means that you can match Riesling with virtually any dish. A dry minerally Riesling will go well alongside fish and seafood while a sweet variety will go well with dishes that mix both savoury and sweet on one plate.
What Does Riesling Taste Like?
After being treated to an exceptionally aromatic flowery smell, a sip will reveal hints of peaches, pears, apples and plumbs. But this will only give you a general idea of what to expect when drinking Riesling.
Riesling has the reputation of being a sweet wine but its taste profile is more complex than that. Like Sauvignon Blanc its flavour can vary widely depending on the region it is grown. Warm climates produce a Riesling that is full, sweet and less acidic than ones produced in cooler climates. It can be bone dry in one instance and extraordinal sweet in another.
The variations of tastes are so wide that the International Riesling Foundation has created a scale called the IRF Riesling Taste Profile, to make it easier for wine drinkers to better predict the taste they will get from a particular bottle of Riesling after it is poured.
Riesling in Australia
Riesling is believed to have arrived on Australian shores in the mid-1800s. The first documented significant attempt to cultivate the grape was by William Macarthur who dedicated 20 acres of land in Penrith New South Wales to its production.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Riesling became Australia’s leading variety of white wine. It held this distinction until the 1990s when Chardonnay began to increase in popularity. As in Germany, the popularity of Riesling in Australia is on the rise once again thanks to the eagerness of the drinking public to rediscover the variety.
Aussie winemakers are also supplying a decent amount of wine to the international market. Its Australia’s fourth most exported white with trade valued at around $18 million annually. Almost 65 per cent of Australian exports of Riesling goes to North America alone.
Where is Riesling Grown?
The versatility of Riesling has allowed it to thrive in vineyards all over the world. It thrives well in both warm and cool climates and is represented well on both sides of the equator. It’s still most popular in its country of origin, however, with German growers dedicating more than 23,000 hectares of land to its production. Approximately one-third of that comes from Germany’s Mosel region.
The French have also taken to the grape that is well-beloved by their neighbour, with the most significant growth in that country occurring in Alsace. Austria, another German neighbour, has predictably taken a strong liking to the grape. In fact, outside of the Rhine region, Austria provides Riesling with its second most important habitat.
Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Italy have also reported significant production of the grape as well.
Riesling has also travelled further east into Europe, popping up in countries like the Ukraine, Serbia and Slovakia.
The United States has to tip a hat to German immigrants who brought both their traditional winemaking skills and Riesling vines to the New World with them in the late 1800s. Today Riesling in the United States makes its home in Washington State and Michigan.
In Australia, Riesling is revered. In fact, today Australia produces more Riesling than France. It can be found in many states but the most prominent is South Australia with most grapes living in vineyards in the Clare and Eden Valleys and the High Eden area. Today, the Clare Valley is considered to be the region with the highest quality Riesling in Australia.
Riesling is a centuries-old grape that creates a surprisingly wide variety of wine with almost vastly varying personalities. It has endured attempts to pigeonhole it into undeserved narrow categories and has emerged with the reputation of being a complex and coveted white.