The Noble Writ: A Riesling Primer


Riesling is my favorite white grape variety, and if pressed, I'd probably choose it as my favorite grape overall (pinot noir being its only real competition). So it pains me that so many folks interested in wine seem to ignore it, if not deride or despise it. There are many misconceptions about riesling, and the German on many riesling labels acts as a further barrier. However, no other grape so clearly articulates where it is grown, which makes the effort not only worthwhile, but obligatory for the someone interested in exploring the concept of terroir.

The biggest issue with riesling is sweetness. Most rieslings have a not-insignificant amount of sugar in them, and this gets into the craw of people who have learned that only "dry" wines are "serious" and worthy of their attention. I've noticed that there is a large overlap between folks holding these beliefs and those who enjoy " dry" red wines that actually have a large amount of residual sugar in them as well. Try to keep an open mind, and I think you will be rewarded with a wonderful wine experience.

  • Karl Bauer, Wikimedia Commons
  • Riesling grapes
In riesling from Germany -- and, to a lesser extent, from Austria and the Alsace region of France -- the riesling grape has such a high level of acidity that some sugar is necessary to make a wine that tastes balanced to most people. There are "dry" riesling wines (labeled "Trocken"), but even these allow a bit of sugar to help achieve balance -- though the few I've sampled (the Germans love them, so not many bottles make it out of the country) were quite severe.

A well-made German riesling (we'll get to other countries in a future column) is a complex balancing act: There is ripe juicy fruit -- often peach or citrus -- but it frequently plays a supporting role to mineral and stone flavors. The massive acidity sharpens these flavors; in turn, it is smoothed and rounded by the touch of sweetness. An added bonus to these wines is their low levels of alcohol. Most German rieslings clock in between 7% and 11% alcohol.

It is the prominence of the rock flavors that makes German riesling so captivating to me. As one moves among the different regions of Germany, the mineral flavors change; with repeated tasting, you can recognize variations in these flavors even in vineyards that are right next to each other.

  • Dave Nelson
German wine laws are complex, and much of this complexity is reflected on the wine label. However, for this primer, we are sticking with a basic bottling most good producers release called a "QbA" (short for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete -- no, seriously, that's what they decided to call it).

Despite recent, albeit overdue, stratospheric rises in German wine prices, QbAs from great producers can still be found in the $12-$25 price range. A fine QbA will give you a flavor for the producer's style of winemaking as well as a '"big picture" look at the region from which they produce wine.

2007 Schloss Saarstein QbA (9.5% - $13, the Clayton Wine & Cheese Place). Pale straw in color. Classic Saar nose of slightly dusty warm slate dominates the nose, with some ripe peachy fruit lurking in the background. Spicy, crisp and mouthwatering on the palate. The acidity is fantastic, and the finish just goes on and on. A lick of the lips after tasting finds tingly remnants of lemony acidity. This is just great stuff that is punching well above QbA weight. At $13 it's practically stealing. Highly recommended for an inexpensive, high quality introduction to what German riesling can be.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.