Sacred Places: Riesling Growing Regions

Germany is the ancestral homeland for Riesling. The grape is grown throughout the country and delivers wonderfully expressive and varied selections of Riesling. Historically the Mosel, Rheingau and Rheinhessen are the most important regions, with notable wines also grown in Pfalz and Nahe.

The Mosel produces the best wines, and is portrayed as the benchmark of quality. Mosel wines tend to be delicate, lower in alcohol, higher in acid, floral and intensely mineral. They are usually made in an off-dry style, owing to their elevated acidity. This is THE Riesling region, with 66% of its total acreage being dedicated to Riesling. The Mosel is commonly planted on steep, south-facing hillsides of high planting density along the Mosel River. Soils are mostly composed of slate though volcanic rocks can be found. The best vineyards are often Erste Lage from VDP producers. Classic producers include Dr. Loosen, Markus Molitor, Selbach-Oster, J.J. Prûm, Dr. Thanisch and Von Schubert (Maximin Grünhaus), among many others.

Riesling is the dominant planting in the Rheingau and considered by some as the traditional home of the grape. Many wines are made in the dry style and are rich and full-bodied. There is usually a pronounced acidity and spiciness to the wines and often a characteristic Kirsch or cherry fragrance. This is the home of the Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg and the famous Geisenheim winemaking school.

This is Germany’s largest wine region. Wines tend to be softer, lower in acidity, fragrant and medium-bodied. Rheinhessen is home of the infamous Liebfraumilch and is mostly known for its Trocken wines.

Pfalz (Palatinate)
The Pfalz region is known for its brilliant dry Rieslings, as well as for its spicy Spätlesen and Auslesen. There is a clone of Riesling (Clone 90) unique to the Pfalz, developed at the Neustadt Research Institute, which is believed to be responsible for Pfalz wines’ unique spicy character. Pfalz is the home of the Weinstrasse (famous wine road). Classic producers include Müller-Catoir and Bürklin-Wolf.

The Nahe River flows parallel to the Mosel and is a tributary of the Rhine River. This was traditionally a very important Riesling region, and produces excellent dry Riesling. Top producers include Schlossgut Diel and Weingut Dönnhoff.

Other German Riesling-producing regions include Baden, Württemberg and Franken.

Alsace is the only wine region in France allowed to grow Riesling grapes. The region, on the west side of the Rhine River, is very rich in diverse terroirs and consists of alluvial-based soils in the plain to calcareous, marl or sandstone on the hills. Fifty-one Grand Cru vineyards are scattered along the 90-mile-long region. Alsatian Riesling wines are often made in a dry style and they tend to be aromatic and powerful. Alsatian vignerons prefer to produce wines of higher alcohol content, normally around 12% (there’s a legal minimum of 11% alcohol for the Riesling wines in Alsace). Classic producers include Marcel Deiss, Hugel et Fils, Josmeyer, Albert Mann, Ostertag, Schlumberger, F.E. Trimbach, Weinbach and Zind Humbrecht.

Interestingly, the wine laws in Alsace are mostly German. Alsace has been French territory since 1648 (when the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War), though it reverted back to Germany from 1870 to 1918, and then again from 1939 to 1944. Riesling is on record as being planted in the Alsace region since 1477 when its quality was praised by the Duke of Lorraine. Today over a fifth of Alsace’s vineyards are covered with Riesling vines, mostly in the Haut-Rhin district.

Riesling is widely produced across the West Coast and in select areas of New York, Michigan and Canada. Because the climates, geographies and soils of these regions are so vastly diverse, North America produces a panoply of Riesling styles. In the late nineteenth century German immigrants brought with them Riesling vines, named Johannisberg Riesling. New York, particularly the Finger Lakes region, was one of the earliest U.S. producers of Riesling. Plantings first appeared in California by 1857 and followed by Washington in 1871.

In Washington, Riesling is experiencing nothing short of a boon. Most of the Riesling acreage is grown in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range on the east side of the state within the Columbia Valley appellation. One particularity of the viticulture in this region is the quasi absence of rootstocks. Washington is the largest Riesling producer in the United States. Classic soils of the Columbia Valley of Washington are wind-blown loess on the top of granitic deposits from the Missoula floods sitting above the basalt bedrock. The wines are usually ripe, often slightly sweet (though not necessarily so), with notes of peach and expressing excellent minerality. Classic producers are Chateau Ste. Michelle/Eroica, Pacific Rim, Hogue, Columbia Winery, Poet’s Leap, Owen Sullivan and Woodward Canyon.

Oregon has a small tradition of Riesling. There the vineyards lie mainly on the western side of the Cascades where rainfall is abundant. Oregon Riesling grapes preserve great acidity, and often the time for picking is critical due to the threat of early Fall rains.

California’s Riesling plantings are located in cooler areas around Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Depending on the climate, California Riesling can be soft and full-bodied, sometimes lacking acidity. In California, Riesling lags far behind in popularity to Chardonnay and is not as commonly planted. A notable exception is the growing development of high-quality Late Harvest dessert wines.

In Ontario, Riesling is commonly used for ice wine, where the wine is notable for its breadth and complexity. The climate of the region is typically quite warm in the summertime, which adds a layer of richness in the wines. Ontario is a major producer of ice wine (legally, the grapes need to be frozen on the vine), with production volumes nearly equal to those of Germany. Late Harvest wines and some sparkling wines are produced from Riesling in Ontario, but it is dry to off-dry table wines which hold the largest share of production. In British Columbia, Riesling is commonly grown for use in ice wine, table wine, and Sekt-style sparkling wines. The Okanagan has a growing season similar to Washington’s with long summer days and cool nights.

New York
New York Riesling finds a varied expression in upstate New York where it is often grown to produce notable ice wine. New York Rieslings are typically produced in a drier style and have a characteristic effervescent light body with a similarly light, mellow flavor. The industry is concentrated around four lakes (from east to west): Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua. This is an historically rich region from the first wineries in the 1860s to the glorious years of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier.

Michigan contains four AVAs known for the production of quality wines including Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula. All four of these regions are located in proximity to Lake Michigan, and almost all of Michigan’s wine grapes are grown within 25 miles of the lake. The lake effect provides a favorable microclimate compared to interior regions of the state. Chateau Grand Traverse is a classic producer in this region.

The warmer Australian climate produces thicker skinned grapes, sometimes seven times the thickness of German-grown grapes. Australian Rieslings are noted for their oily texture and lime fruit flavors in their youth and a smooth balance of freshness and acid as they age. Riesling producing regions are largely found in South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
In 1838, William Macarthur planted Riesling vines near Penrith in New South Wales. Riesling was the most planted white grape in Australia until the early 1990s when Chardonnay greatly increased in popularity. Riesling still flourishes in the Clare Valley, in particular the areas of Watervale and around the Polish Hill River, and the cooler Eden Valley where some sparkling Riesling is produced.

The Clare Valley is probably the finest Riesling producing region in Australia. The Clare Valley presents wide variation of soils (limestone, shale…). The wines are often very dry and highly aromatic. Most Rieslings throughout Australia are bottled under screwcap closure. Classic producers are Grosset, Jim Barry, Knappstein and Petaluma Clare Estate.

New Zealand Riesling wines tend to be lighter and more delicate than their Australian neighbors due to the cooler climate. They are made from dry to sweet with the best examples coming from Marlborough and Nelson.

Austria has relatively small plantings but Riesling is the second leading white grape variety after the indigenous Grüner Veltliner. Wines are mostly made in the dry style and known for being clean, direct, rich and palate-coating with a particularly strong mineral aspect. A particular Austrian Riesling trademark is a long finish that includes hints of white pepper. With alcohol levels normally around 13%, Austrian Riesling has a relatively high alcohol content and is generally at its peak after 5 years. Main Riesling producing regions include Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal.

The Cape winelands stretch from the rugged mountains and multi-directional slopes of the coastal region to the open plains of the Little Karoo where viticulture takes place mainly in the riverine valleys. South Africa’s vineyards are mostly situated in the Western Cape near the coast. Rainfall on the coastal side, where fynbos and renosterveld vegetation flourish, measures up to 1 000 mm per year. Travel over the mountains into the hinterland and the rainfall decreases dramatically with the vegetation dominated by hardy succulents, cycads and aloes.

Riesling is well-adapted to various soils, and is preferably planted on medium potential soils in cool climates. The clones available are quite susceptible to botrytis rot due to their compact bunch form. Planted commercially for the first time in 1974, some of the more successful Rieslings are made in a botrytis or Noble Late Harvest style.

In 2007 there were 240 hectares of Riesling planted in South Africa, representing 0.23% of the total area planted to wine grapes in South Africa. 1761 tonnes of grapes were crushed. There has been a recent revival for Riesling in the form of “Just Riesling” an association of all the Riesling producers in South Africa.

Until 2010 the prefix ‘Rhine’ or ‘Weisser’ must be used for Riesling to distinguish it from the inferior Cape Riesling, or Crouchen Blanc.