Monday, June 3, 2019

Is Riesling the world's most under-rated premium grape variety?

I was in a Bengali restaurant (Taste of Bangla) the other evening, and among the beers (Bangla Premium Beer), cocktails (Bangla Sunset, Monsoon Rain) and wines there was a white wine called Last Night a Riesling Saved My Life. I didn't get to taste it, but the name is brilliant. It comes from Rheinhessen (in Germany), and apparently its fruity sweetness goes well with spicy foods.

This contrasts with the word “riesling” from my youth in Australia, where “riesling” was not always a grape but often a wine style, made from any one of a number of grapes. For example, “Hunter River Riesling” was made from Sémillon, and “Clare Riesling” was made from Crouchen.* Fortunately, since Riesling deserves to be treated better than this, the industry started to use the name “Rhine Riesling” when referring to the grape itself (which must have annoyed the people from Alsace and the Mosel), and then later simply “Riesling”.

However, Riesling has long had another image problem, not just in Australia. This is the matter of the style of wine to be expected from any given bottle. Put simply, Riesling has long had an identity crisis — this makes it probably the world’s best “forgotten” grape variety.

Sweet and dry

So, let’s jump right in to the essence of the issue. I will let Rhys Howlett describe the problem:
Riesling is versatile. Around the world its range includes the bone-dry Clare Valley beauties, which take years to lose their vice-like acid grip; austere Oregon offerings; through to some of the most generously proportioned Alsatian examples — rich, mouth-filling, luscious. Riesling can fizz, it can botrytize, it can do just about everything. And another thing it can do very well, or we can do on its behalf, is confuse the drinker.
Given the wide range of potential styles, how is the poor drinker to know what is in the particular wine bottle they have in their hand?

The blatantly obvious solution is to have a bottle label that tells them. The International Riesling Foundation has been trying to promote this idea, using their Riesling Taste Profile, which is a little diagram for use by the label maker, based on a simple linear scale. It describes the style of wine, rather than merely the sugar content, as in this example:

The winemaker provides the word taste description, and the IRF provides the pictorial scale. Note that there are also words to help with understanding the scale, but it is the arrow that contains the actual information. The style information is based on the relationship between the wine's sugar content and its acidity, as indicated in this small table.

For consumers, the focus with Riesling is often on the apparent sweetness of the wine, although fruitiness is often mistaken for sweetness. However, it is the balance between sugar and acid that makes a great Riesling wine. This, of course, means that temperature plays an important part in growing the grapes — the cooler, the better.

Where is Riesling grown?

Given the importance of temperature, we cannot expect Riesling to be grown just anywhere, even within grape-growing regions. Journey Through Wine: an Atlas says of Riesling: “A true mirror of the soil, it expresses terroir brilliantly. In Alsace and Germany, there are surely as many Rieslings as there are villages!”

There are c. 50,000 hectares of Riesling vineyards recorded, as shown in the next table (compiled from here and here).

Riesling acreage

Almost precisely half of the world’s Riesling vineyards are is in western Germany, along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, and in the neighboring part France. (Alsace is good to visit because it looks so perfectly German while culturally being so clearly French.) Here, and here alone, is Riesling the No. 1 grape. The locals treat it with a great deal of respect, even though they cannot usually charge as much for their wines as can many of their brethren elsewhere — this does not say that you can't pay breath-taking prices, if you want to.

The USA is the second largest producer of Riesling, although you will be hard put to find out much about in the wine media. A tad over 50% of the growing area is in Washington, which receives much less media attention than does California (or should I say: the Napa Valley?). The focus in Washington is more on Syrah and Chardonnay, to the obvious detriment of Riesling wines.

Australia is the third largest producer, although the majority of the wine comes from only two regions, as shown in the next graph, from Wine Tasmania (production is indicated by the size of the bubbles). Tasmania is emerging as the highest quality region for all cool-climate grape-growing, and current Riesling grape prices are higher there than elsewhere (as shown by the vertical axis in the graph). However, in keeping with the theme of this post, it is the Tasmanian sparkling wines (made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) that garner most of the attention from the wine industry (see Riesling reaches high status in Tasmania).

Riesling yield and price in Australia in 2018

Riesling is also slowly making headway in New Zealand, where it is also expected to do well (see Champion of a ‘misunderstood’ class).

What about climate change?

The sweetness of the wines is a balance between the sugar and alcohol contents of the wine, since sugar creates both alcohol and residual sweetness. There is an obvious concern about a potential relationship between quality (sugar content of the crushed grapes) and quantity (the amount of grapes harvested). The American Association of Wine Economists’ Facebook page looked at this relationship for recent vintages in Germany, without finding any problem:

However, changing temperatures are likely to create more challenges for Riesling growers than for many other grape-growers. Warmer seasons will affect the grapes' balance between sugar and acid, which will make choosing the ideal harvest time more difficult. Making a consistent style from year to year may be impossible. David Schildknecht recently described the effect of the weather on the 2017 Riesling vintage in Germany, for example.

The AAWE Facebook page also looked at this relationship for recent vintages in Germany, and found a strong relationship temperature and grape sugar content. Hotter seasons produce more sugar, as expected:

If you want to drink wines with a lot of residual sugar, such as the Beerenauslese and Trockbeerenauslese styles, then 2018 was a good year for you (2003 was another legendary year).

Grape yields, on the other hand, were much less affected by temperature, as shown next.

Indeed, it is usually reported that yields are most affected by rainfall, both when it occurs and how much there is, so precipitation variation may be a more interesting aspect of climate change to investigate.

Finally, climate change is not only a direct threat to Riesling vineyards but also an indirect one. As pointed out recently, changing weather is also changing pesticide usage, as a means to ameliorate some of the effects; and this is also now an issue in Germany: Riesling wine, holding out between pesticides and climate change.


Riesling vines appear to still be alive, and more-or-less well, in spite of the current dip in consumer focus on the resulting wines. If you want to explore this part of the industry in more detail, then a couple of recent books will help you:
  • Stuart Pigott (2014) Best White Wine on Earth: the Riesling Story.
  • John Winthrop Haeger (2016) Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry.

* At the same time, “White Burgundy”, “Red Burgundy”, “Claret”, and “White Hermitage” also referred to Australian styles not French regions, and the wines were rarely made from the grapes usually associated with these wine names. For whites, it is amazing how many different styles you can get just by mixing different proportions of wine from Muscat Gordo Blanco (aka Muscat of Alexandria) and Sultana (aka Thompson Seedless)!


  1. Jancis Robinson MW laments the lack of consumer appreciation and adoption of German Rieslings.

    From her website:

    "Riesling -- will it ever catch on?"



    "For roughly 35 years I have been talking up Riesling, describing it as the world's greatest white wine grape."

    1. Sadly, the question she asks is answered by the claim that she has been talking for 35 years — that's several generation of wine drinkers who have not been listening. Mind you, Rosé is currently booming, having been in the doldrums 10 years ago. David

  2. Those who desire dry German Rieslings can look for this designation on the bottle: "Grosses Gewächs."

    From Decanter magazine
    (September 19, 2017):

    "Understanding Grosses Gewächs Riesling and wines to look for"


    By James Button


    "Germany produces some of the best dry Rieslings in the world. Read more about what 'GG' means on the label and see our recommendations for GG Riesling wines to try..."

    1. Few of the people who do not speak German are likely to deal with expressions like "Grosses Gewächs" willingly. Germans who want to export their wines know this. David