Few would dispute that Riesling does not like new oak; new wood generally stomps all over Riesling’s delicate flavors. The variety also does not favor malolactic fermentation, which has the lovely floral characteristics that make Riesling the special grape that it is. Finally, Riesling generally prefers not to be blended with other grape varieties.
Vineyards and Winemaking
One likely parent of Riesling is Gouais Blanc, known to the Germans as Weißer Heunisch, which originated in Croatia and was brought to central Europe by the Romans. The other parent is probably a cross between a wild vine and Traminer. It is presumed that Riesling was born somewhere in the valley of the Rhine, since both Heunisch and Traminer have a long-documented history in Germany.
Most of the Riesling clonal selection comes primarily from Germany. France and the United States have done comparatively few Riesling selections. Below is a table of the most commonly found Riesling clones:
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Riesling is a very hardy grape, resisting cold winter
and it usually recovers well from spring frosts.
The variety tends to be sensitive to Botrytis.
In the late 19th century German horticulturalists devoted much effort to the development of new Riesling hybrids that would create a more flexible, less temperamental grape which could still retain some of the elegant characteristics of Riesling. Among the most famous hybrids are:
Most sommeliers will tell you that the worst enemies of wine pairings are asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes and eggs.
ASPARAGUS are very fragrant and rich in methionin, a sulfur-containing amino acid that makes everything taste somewhat vegetal. A solution is to grill the asparagus and to serve it with a sauce. Unoaked white wines such as Riesling will make a great match.
ARTICHOKES are rich in cynarine, which enhances the sweetness of a wine and can make the wine taste flabby and bitter. A very dry Riesling is probably one of the few wines that can stand up to artichokes.
TOMATOES are high in acid and the underlying acidity clashes with wine. Riesling can present an elegant solution, especially if the Riesling is crafted in an Alsatian style (about 1.5% residual sugar) because the slight sugar helps complement the tomatoes’ acidity but does not disrupt it.
The yolk of an EGG has a tendency to tame wine aromas and the egg’s sulfurous scent can interfere with the wine. A bright Riesling with high acid is almost always the perfect pairing. Based on the preparation of the egg, the appropriate Riesling can be sweet or dry.
Biodynamic principles are quite applicable to Riesling because Riesling wines are typically quite connected to their place of origin. Biodynamicists consider the farm as an organism and they do not use any pesticides, herbicides or chemicals (organic or synthetic), relying instead on the Biodynamic preparations (essentially a form of viticultural homeopathy), and farming to the Biodynamic calendar – harmonizing the agricultural activities with the dominant aspect of the plant on a given day.
- Late Budding Grape Variety (about five days after Chasselas)
- Late Ripener (ripens three weeks after Chasselas)
- Very Hardy Vine
- Highly Resistant to Disease & Weather
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Riesling grape has historically been extremely flattered, often with the intention of adding a slight aura of respectability to clearly lesser grape varieties. The list of usurpers runs long: Welschriesling is common in Austria, Croatia and Hungary and is sometimes also labeled as Riesling Italico. There is also Olasz Rizling,
Laski Rizling and Riesling Renano. Schwarzriesling (Black Riesling) is the German name for Pinot meunier. Cape Riesling is the South African name for the French grape Crouchen. Gray Riesling is actually Trousseau Gris and Emerald Riesling is not a true Riesling at all, but a cross between Riesling and the rather more prosaic Muscadelle.
Riesling is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling wines. In wine making, the delicate nature of the Riesling grape requires careful handling during harvesting to avoid crushing or bruising the skin. Without this care, the broken skins could release tannin into the juice, giving it a markedly bitter taste and disrupting the wine’s balance.
To preserve the fresh quality of Riesling, grapes and juice may be chilled throughout the vinification process: immediately following harvest to preserve the grapes’ more delicate flavors, after the juice has been processed through a press and right before fermentation. During fermentation, the wine is usually kept cool in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks kept between 50-65°F (10-18°C). This differs markedly from red wine fermentations which normally attain temperatures of 75-85°F (24-29°C). Unlike Chardonnays, most Rieslings are not permitted to undergo malolactic fermentation. This helps to preserve the tart, acidic characteristic of the wine, giving Riesling its bright, vibrant quality and not introducing any extraneous or distracting buttery aromas.
Riesling is often put through a process of cold stabilization, where the wine is stored just above its freezing point. The wine is kept at this temperature until much of the potassium bitartrate (the acid salt of tartaric acid) has precipitated out of the wine. This helps prevent crystallization of the bitartrates (often called “wine diamonds”) in the bottle. After this, the wine is normally filtered to remove any remaining yeast or impurities. In order to avoid re-fermentation in the bottle, most Rieslings are sterile filtered because they contain residual malic acid and residual sugar.
Riesling is an extremely versatile grape capable of producing world-class wines in all styles from bone dry to sparkling to intensely sweet. No other grape is able to express itself through this full stylistic spectrum with such grace and competence. Riesling is able to do so both because of its high natural acidity and potential to develop high sugar levels.
For wine, acidity is a great ally. Acidity is a natural preservative, allowing wines to age and develop more gracefully (and longer) in the bottle, while providing the structure or backbone around which the wine is built. Acidity also provides a counterpoint to sweetness and has a balancing effect upon wines that are made with measurable residual sugar.
When we drink wine, acidity provides our palates with a sensation of freshness, brightness and liveliness. The acidity cleanses our palate when consuming food, helping to keep us interested in both what we are eating and drinking. Wines without sufficient acidity can appear dull, boring or flat, or as if nothing is there to hold them together (lacking balance and harmony).
There’s a Riesling to fit any situation and circumstance – to pair with cuisine as diverse as the lightest seafood and salads to the richest meat dishes and complex sauces to even sweet desserts. The fun challenge is discovering the right Riesling for a particular food and occasion.
Riesling, because of its purity, shows cork taint arguably more than any other varietal wine. As early as 1976, Australian producer Pewsey Vale bottled Riesling under screwcap. Now most of the Australian Rieslings – like many US and German Rieslings – are bottled under screwcap, a guarantee of freshness and purity.
Slate is the classic Riesling soil, although the grape also grows well in sandy loams. The grape excels in well-drained soils with poor fertility.
Good Riesling is like a window into the vineyard, reflecting very clearly where and how it is grown. Many experts agree that Riesling best expresses the notion of terroir, which considers the complete influence of the natural environment (soil structure, topography, sunlight, water…) on the vine, as well as the human interaction with this particular environment.
Though it may sound strange, Riesling has a transparency about it – a heightened sensitivity to its surroundings. Riesling responds best to cool climates and nutritionally poor soils with high mineral content. When you manipulate Riesling away from its natural environment, it will create mediocre wines that lack complex character and vitality.