White wines – Reisling


I had hoped to do my next post on these eleven noble cépages noted at the end of my first post.

As I said, I am not a Master of Wine and my specific area of expertise is in the fermentation part and with it maturation. I have absorbed some information on grape varieties and their characteristic styles but when I started to write I realised that I could do justice to all these varietals in one piece so, here goes and depending how much I write, and edit down, it may be one or two varieties per post.

I will start with the whites and here I have a confession to make, I don’t as a rule drink whites. It is not that I don’t find them interesting but it is just that some of them, and I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it, give me indigestion and if I drink them for dinner I can be up for most of the night and have to take anti acids. Even worse is the mix of white wine and fatty food; I am in real pain here. I try not to drink at lunch, even a glass as the Gendarmes here have nothing else to do but set up road blocks after lunch and dinner times and breathalyse anyone who drives past them.

The limit here is less than the UK so I just don’t mix wine and driving, although many French do chance their arm. In this area the French really do drive like madmen and whenever I drive on a Saturday or Sunday morning it is not unknown to see one or two rolled cars in the fields beside bends. There are also a lot of plastic flowers tied to tree trunks, the ones that line the main roads, testifying to the solidity of the trees and the fragility of both car and human. I was discussing with someone here and he told me that my department had an accident rate twice that of the French average and that is about twice that of the UK. I believe that it is a birthing ritual in France where the newborn are dropped on the heads and the ones who bounce highest get their driving licence first.

So I have consulted my books and telephoned a number of friends in various parts of the World to get their advice on grape varieties.

This is what I have distilled (pun intended).

Before we go into the Riesling part let me explain some stuff about grape vines in general. The grape vine is botanically called Vitus vinifera and it seems to be distributed naturally around the World. There are, at least so far that have counted, at least seventeen other genera of Vitus in North America, seventeen in the Far East, and others elsewhere.

It seems that English botanists, at the end of the nineteenth century, imported North American vines for their collection. What they didn’t know was that with the vines they imported a rootstock louse. The N American varieties had some degree of resistance but the cat was out the bag and the louse soon infected the small English vineyards and decimated them. It then spread to France and throughout Europe again decimating as it went.

Two solutions were found; that of hybridizing the vinifera vines with resistant N American ones. This worked but the resultant hybrids produced wine with malodours of the N American parent; called foxy.  The other of grafting the vinifera vines onto N American rootstock worked better and no bad odours seemed to be passed from the rootstock up into the vine.

So just about all the wine produced in the World today are produced on vinifera vines grafted onto native N American rootstock.


Jancis Robinson likes the Riesling and describes it as having an “unsurpassable quality, indisputably aristocratic and ridiculously underestimated.” So high praise indeed.

I think part of the problem with Riesling, in the perception of the public that is, is that a lot of the white German wine sold in the UK is branded Liebfraumilch muck and probably does not contain Reisling.

Another second problem with Riesling is that there are many other grapes carrying the “riesling” name are possibly not actually riesling.

A third problem is that German wine labels are extremely difficult for the uninitiated to understand  and riesling wines can be elaborated in plethora of styles which means that you might buy what you think is riesling but have difficulty conforming that of many labels. More of that later.

Riesling is a tough vine and able to withstand low temperature and can thrive in soils that are not very fertile. When transplanted to warmer climates it does not thrive well.

Riesling wines can be dry, medium or even sweet depending on the climate and vinification techniques.

When dry they should be drunk young and are rarely matured in oak. Between 1 to 2 years old for dry Rieslings, 3 to 4 years for medium and between 8 and 15 years for sweets.

In Germany the Riesling is cultivated everywhere but there are five main ones; Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau and Rheinessen. The first obviously is bordering the river Mosel and is called Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and the other four are cultivated on land bordering the Rhine.

Going back over my notes I found some information given me by Peter Noble who was a Master of Wine and at one time was in charge of the Queen’s wine cellar. He loved Riesling and told me that the key to understanding the variation on these regions was the soil. The Mosel soil is salty and imparts a salty taste to the wine.  Rheinessen soil is sandy loamy and imparts a richness to the wine. Pfalz soil is volcanic and the wines with rounded wine with a lower acidity whilst Rheingau wines are steely acidic.

If German Riesling wines are for you, I suggest you buy a couple of each of these and taste them with some friends to tease out these notes in your mind. Remember to get similar ages production processes though which me to process variation and all that can do to change the style of wines produced from the same grape in the same region.

Dry Halbtrocken  Wines with 9 to 18 grams of residual sugar per litre
Medium Dry Kabinett  Light delicate wines (25+g), made from ripe grapes picked at the normal harvest time. Grapy and easy to drink.
Medium Sweet Spätlese  Late picked ripe grapes (35+g sugar) picked normally at least 7 days after the normal harvest giving a stronger flavour than Kabinett
Sweet Auslese  Late harvested and made from hand selected bunches with a residual sugar of 40+ g. Very rich, concentrated flavoursome wines.
Very Sweet Beerenauslese  Late harvested very sugary bunches of grapes which produce a luscious sweet desert wine
  Eiswein  Beerenauslese grapes left on the vine to freeze, in some years, which concentrates the sugars but preserves the acid balance. The wines are reputed to last for 20 years.

Selected grapes allowed to dry on the vine and attacked by a fungus which effectively to further concentrate the sugars. Only happens in certain years although the same technique is used in Denmark (!), Hungary and Canada.

These wines, if you can afford them are extremely sweet and because of the acidity can last even longer than Eiswein.

So we can see that there are quite a fair amount of permutations and scope for individuality with five main production areas, each with a nuanced input based on soil and eight different styles.

On the lower end of the spectrum, up to Beerauslese and beyond, sugar can legally be added to increase the alcohol level or residual sugars in these early picked grapes. Beerauslese and beyond means that no sugar can be added.

Turning now outside Germany and we find Rieslings produced in Switzerland, Austria, France, various Eastern countries, USA, South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

As I said earlier, there are Riesling hybrids carrying the name Riesling and others with similar sounding names like Rizling, Rislig, and Reslink which are actually Riesling. Moreover the Riesling has many synonyms including and not exhaustively the following; weisser Riesling, Rössling, Riesler, Rieslinger, Rheinriesling, Moselriesling, Rheingauer, Johannisberger, Hochheimer, niederländer, klingelberger, Grafenberger, Kastelberger, Rhine Reisling (Australia and NZ) and White Riesling (USA)

Remember the real Riesling grape grows best in less fertile soils and cooler, damper climates. If going for USA, avoid Californian and zero in on Oregon and Washington State, and in the Antipodes avoid Australian, unless from Tasmania and go for New Zealand.

Remember to read the label in the store and see if it defines the grape variety and the percentage, if it contains other varieties. Just because it says the word Riesling or some variant on the label it does not follow that it is that.

Beware, but be adventurous and keep notes.