Riesling — A Guide to the Basics

No other grape variety is as closely associated with sweet wines as Riesling. And for a long time, sweet, often sugary Rieslings made up most of Rieslings on the American market. But in reality, that was only an accurate representation of some of what the grape variety is capable of because Riesling is produced in styles that run the gamut from very sweet to bone dry and in countries worldwide. Sweet German Riesling may have the most notoriety, but dry Austrian Riesling is every bit as profound. And fantastic Rieslings (both sweet and dry) are made from Oregon and New York to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and more. No matter where it’s grown or how it’s produced, Riesling is capable of greatness. No wonder it’s such a favorite among sommeliers and wine professionals.

What is Riesling Wine?

Riesling is a wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. The vast majority of Rieslings on the market are still white wines, but it’s possible to find sparkling examples as well. Depending on where and how it’s produced, Riesling can be dry, sweet, or somewhere in between. Riesling tends to be remarkably food-friendly, not just pairing with but elevating a wide range of foods, from hearty butter-and-cream-sauced fish and light meats to aromatically spiced curries.

Where Does Riesling Wine Come From?

Riesling is closely associated with Germany, where its most famous examples are made. In general, Riesling shines most brightly in cooler climates, which allows its natural acidity to come to the fore.

German Riesling tends to be sweet … but it’s not monolithically sweet. Riesling labeled Kabinett boasts the subtle sweetness of ripe fruit, whereas Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling can go toe-to-toe with sweet desserts (and funky cheeses!) without issue. However, if you see a German Riesling labeled Trocken, that means it’s dry in style. In Austria, Riesling is most widely produced as a dry wine, and the most outstanding examples can last for years and sometimes decades. A distinct sense of minerality can typically be discerned with both German and Austrian Riesling. German Sekt, or sparkling wine produced from Riesling, is also a still relatively niche but fascinating and food-friendly one worth exploring.

Riesling is also produced in Alsace, where some of the most outstanding Grand Crus are crafted from the variety, and in Australia, where regions like Clare Valley and Eden Valley are home to excellent ones. Oregon and Washington State boast outstanding Riesling, as does New York, particularly the Finger Lakes, which produces most of the state’s Riesling.

At its best, Riesling is a very transparent grape variety, meaning that it expresses the character of where it is grown. This is an attribute prized by grape growers, winemakers, wine professionals, and consumers since it closely ties any given bottle to its place of origin.

Why Should You Drink Riesling Wine?

It’s possible to grow different grape varieties in locations around the world; what makes the wines from them interesting is that they offer a lens through which to see the particular patch of planet Earth where their roots are sunk. This is known as “terroir-specificity”; it makes a Grand Cru Burgundy more clamored for than Premier Cru, for example. Riesling, it’s widely agreed, has a uniquely evocative ability to express where it was grown.

In addition to the often dramatic ways Riesling conveys the land of its origins, it also offers consumers a broad range of styles to choose from. Among the best, even sweet Riesling typically has enough bracing acidity to balance out the residual sugar, allowing each sip to be both decadent and mouthwatering.

Finding a more food-friendly white wine at the table is more challenging than Riesling. Its high acidity allows it to cut through rich sauces; any sweetness means it works well with fruit, and combining the two will enable it to frame aromatic or spicy foods with serious aplomb. And among collectors, Riesling offers fantastic relative value: Compared to other high-quality white wines that can age for any length of time, Riesling can be found for significantly less money than, say, white Burgundy. This results from less expensive land prices everywhere compared to Burgundy’s Cote d’Or and the fact that Riesling was associated with unimpressive and overly sweet wines for so long. Consequentially, the good ones – and there are so many! – offer tremendous value.

What Does Riesling Taste Like?

Sweeter and riper styles of Riesling showcase more fruit, whereas dryer ones tend to be more savory. Across the stylistic spectrum, Riesling generally boasts stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, apricots), citrus fruit (lemon, limes), orchard fruit (apples, pears), and often a core of minerality. It’s common to find hints of spice and sometimes honeyed notes. Ginger and lemongrass are also standard tasting notes. Interestingly, aromas of petrol or gasoline can often be discerned in high-quality Riesling, an attribute that its most ardent fans look for and typically love.

Riesling is best served chilled, though the operating temperature can vary depending on how dry or sweet the wine is and how much of the acid or sweetness you want to highlight: Cooler temperatures will frame the more bracing aspects of a Riesling, whereas serving an off-dry Riesling at a warmer temperature will allow the sweetness and ripe fruit to shine through more clearly. And enjoying Riesling from either a Riesling-specific glass, which looks like a slightly elongated white wine or universal drink, or a versatile or white wine glass, will work well.

Five Great Riesling Wines

There are countless great Riesling wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all Riesling offers.


The well-known Oregon producer offers several Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and sparkling wines. The 2020 Nuthouse Riesling, from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley, is coiled with energetic acidity that carries lemon-lime flavors joined by lime leaf and Granny Smith apples, all of it resolving with a spine of minerality that lingers through the vivid finish.

Cave de Ribeauville

From Alsace, the 2016 Cave de Ribeauville Grand Cru Osterberg Riesling is phenomenal, a wine whose textbook petrol nectarines and slate join aromas before proceeding to a palate of energetic, acid-zipped apricots, hard pears, and apples, lemon-lime, and verbena.

J.J. Christoffel Erben

Their 2006 Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese, the great Mosel producer, shows how well top German Riesling can age. This vibrates with honey-grilled pineapple, dried mangos, and petrol, as well as a nod toward maple syrup. The sweetness is perfectly offset by mouthwatering acidity. This still has time to go, but there’s no need to wait. Younger vintages of this excellent bottling are also worth snapping up.


Their 2020 Scielo Sparkling Riesling “On the Lees” from the North Fork of Long Island is almost cider-like, with crunchy autumn apples, minerality to spare, lemon and lime pith, and a touch of lemon blossom. Good luck not finishing the entire bottle in one sitting!

Weingut Fred Loimer

This respected Austrian producer is based in Langenlois, and crafts sparkling wines, Gruner Veltliner, and more. His Rieslings are unsurprisingly delicious, with bottlings from various vineyard sites throughout the Kamptal DAC.

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