Guide to Riesling | Wine Central


Pronounced "Reece-ling". Riesling has been described by some commentators as " the most brilliant, transparent and aristocratic of all the aromatic whites." It's many fans around the world would argue its the best white wine of all. 

For the majority of wine drinkers however, its fair to say that Riesling is often under-appreciated and over-looked for more fashionable whites like Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

There is a change in the air however as more and more wine drinkers are discovering (or re-discovering) this most versatile of grapes.  And if you have never tried a riesling, or can only remember those sickly sweet German rieslings of the 70,s and 80's we think its time you took another look at Riesling - you won't regret it.

How they Taste

Riesling grapes are small and therefore highly concentrated in flavour as the flesh closest to the skin contains more aromatic compounds.Compared to other white varietals, Riesling ripens very early and produces good yields of highly aromatic grapes. Riesling grapes are small and therefore highly concentrated in flavour as the flesh closest to the skin contains more aromatic compounds.Compared to other white varietals, Riesling ripens very early and produces good yields of highly aromatic grapes.

Riesling grapes are small and therefore highly concentrated in flavour as the flesh closest to the skin contains more aromatic compounds.  Compared to other white varietals, Riesling ripens very early and produces good yields of highly aromatic grapes.

Riesling ranges in flavour from lime, lemon and green apple in Cool Climate / Lower Ripeness examples through to peach, pineapple and apricot flavours more common in Riesling from Warm Climates with higher ripeness.


Riesling is produced in a range of sweetness from bone dry to candy sweet desert wines and all degrees in between.

Acid and Sugar Balance

The natural grape sugar left in the wine is just one of the factors defining the taste. The natural acid and pH offset the sugar, and the interplay of these elements ultimately determines what you will taste. For example, a Riesling with more residual sugar but high acid may well taste drier than one with less sugar and low acid.

As residual sugar increases, the impression of sweetness increases. The sweetness from the sugar interacts with: 

  • The acidity and the level of dissolved carbon dioxide, which offers a sense of freshness.
  • The phenolic content, which offers astringency and body.
  • The alcohol content, which brings a feeling of weight, warmth and dryness on the finish.
  • The pH, which accentuates the expression of the acids and reduces the sensation of sweetness as it goes down.

For example, a Riesling with 1.5% (grams/litre) residual sugar can appear either dry or sweet.

If the wine is 12.5% alcohol with a pH level below 3.0 and an acid level above 9 g/L, the wine will appear to be quite dry.

If the wine is 10% alcohol with a pH level of 3.3 and an acid level around 6 g/L, the wine will seem relatively sweet.


You may often hear riesling described as displaying “petrol “ notes. The petrol note comes from a compound called TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene) which increases during the ageing process. The main factors contributing to these petrol notes in Riesling are:

  • Ripe grapes (accentuated by low yields and/or late harvest)
  • High light exposure
  • Water stress, which is most likely in regions that don’t practice irrigation.
  • Warm soils (gravel, etc.) 

These factors are also considered to contribute to high-quality Riesling wines. The petrol note is more likely to develop in top Riesling wines than in simpler wines made from high-yielding vineyards.

Dry Riesling

Dry Riesling is usually crisp and dry displaying a wide range of green and citrus fruits as well as mineral and earthy flavours which reflect where it is grown. Age adds complexity.  The Alsace style of drier, fuller bodied Riesling is typical as are many Rieslings from New World countries like New Zealand, USA (Washington & NY States) and most Australia Riesling from Clare and Eden Valley.  While a lot of German Riesling is of a sweeter style “Qualitätswein Trocken” German Riesling fit into the dry style. 

  • Fruit Flavours: Apple, Pear, Pineapple, Lime, Lemon
  • Aged Flavours: Diesel, Petrol, Lanolin
  • Aromas: Honey, Beeswax, Petrol, Ginger, Citrus Blossom, Rubber
  • Body: Light
  • Dry/Sweet: Dry
  • Acidity: High
  • Age: Needs a few years of bottle age to show its best

 German Riesling 

German Kabinett and Spatlese Riesling generally display fruiter and more floral aromas with delicate apple, pear, peach and apricot flavours. Their crisp acidity and tangy minerality is offset by residual sugar. These wines develop great complexity as they age.  Somewhat of an acquired taste they can take some getting used to, so persevere and try a few before judging.

  • Body: Light and delicate with a low level of alcohol.
  • Dry/Sweet: Generally medium-dry (sweet to taste) but can also be dry.
  • Acidity: High
  • Age: Require about five years of bottle age to develop properly.
  • Other: Something of an acquired taste – exposure is needed to appreciate its qualities.

German Wine Quality

German Wines are categorised by the degree of ripeness measured in natural grape sugar upon harvest. These ripeness categories are determined by the sugar content in the grapes. 

Riper grapes not only have more sugar but more extract and flavour in the grape, hence a more expressive wine. The higher the ripeness of the grapes used for the wine, the higher up in the pyramid the wine will be categorised.

The categories DO NOT reflect sweetness levels in the finished wine. 

Grapes classified as Qualitätswein up to Auslese, can become a dry (Trocken), dry to medium dry (Halbtrocken) or fruity wine. In contrast to the common belief that German wines are all sweet, close to two-thirds of the entire production in Germany is dry. Dry is the preferred vinification style consumed by the German wine drinker.

Dessert wines or noble sweet wines can be in the Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein category. Good examples distinguish themselves by high concentration of fruit and acidity in combination with rich mouthfeel and intense honey-like flavours.

The Classifications

    Usually lighter wines, made from ripe grapes, relatively low alcohol
  2. SPÄTLESE (Late Harvest)
    Fuller-bodied wines, made from fully ripened grapes. Because complete ripeness usually requires additional time on the vine, these grapes are normally harvested later in the harvest.
    Made from fully ripened bunches; selectively harvested (unripe or diseased berries are discarded)
    Full-bodied, fruity wines made from overripe grapes that usually are affected by Botrytis cinerea (noble rot); selectively harvested (berry selection)
    Highly concentrated wine made from botrytized grapes dried up almost to raisins; selectively harvested (berry selection)
  6. EISWEIN (ice wine)
    Made from grapes harvested and pressed while frozen (-7°C or 19.4°F); only the naturally concentrated juice is pressed out

Riesling Structure - How they feel in the mouth

Riesling made in different styles and from different regions of the world display structural characteristics that fall within the defined limits below:

Built for Cellaring

Of all the white wines Riesling is the varietal build to age.  Good examples can last for decades if stored properly due to their natural high acidity inherent and resistance to oxidation. 

  • QbA and KABINETT - select younger vintages and enjoy them within 5 years for fullest flavour.
  • SPATLESE - enjoyable young, but peak in three to ten years.
  • AUSLESE - need at least two to three years bottle ageing and will continue to develop new and subtle flavours for at least a decade.
  • BA, TBA, EISWEIN - may peak seven to ten years after bottling and , if store well, can develop and remain  fresh and intriguing for decades.

Where in the World?

Riesling is grown all around the world  but the main regions for this grape are Germany, USA, Australia and France.




The home of Riesling would have to be the southwestern German valleys of the Rhine and its off-shoots between Frankfurt and Trier (see map) where it produces tart, lighter style wines often featuring a small amount of natural grape sugar and alcohol levels below 11%.


In the Rheingau Riesling makes up 80% of the region's vineyard area. Other German Riesling strongholds are the Pfalz (5,500 ha), the Mosel (5,300 ha), Rheinhessen (3,900 ha), Württemberg (2,100 ha), Baden (1,100 ha), and the Nahe (1,100 ha).                                 

Across the border in France the climatic conditions of Alsace produce a drier Riesling with more body and higher alcohol content (>12,5%) than their German neighbours. The alcohol content is a good indicator of dryness - the higher the alcohol, the dryer the wine is likely to be.

Some of the best Riesling from around the world can be found in the cooler climate regions of North America, and here in New Zealand where the tendency is more towards the sweeter German style, while those from Austria and Australia favour the drier French approach although the Australian rieslings tend to be less phenolic and alcoholic than those from Alsace.

New Zealand Riesling

Tight, steely, limey New Zealand Riesling are able to be drunk while still young but add complexity as they age with many drinking well at 5-6 years of age or more.  New Zealand rieslings range in style from bone-dry Alsatian styles to sweet late-harvest styles and everything in between.

Winemakers here tend towards an off-dry style with a touch of residual sugar to offset and balance the fresh acid backbone of the wine, but increasingly we are seeing bone-dry versions in more of the Alsatian style.

New Zealand's relatively cool climate is perfect for Rieslings unique ability to achieve full, ripe aromas and flavours at very low sugar levels, important in such a late-ripening grape.

Food Pairing - Dry Riesling

Dryer Rieslings are crisp, bright and refreshing and are excellent with fish and seafood dishes such as sole, turbot, crab and oysters. Their high acidity makes them very good with recipes that include a cream sauce. They are also a great partner for pork and veal or for fatty dishes such as duck. In relation to cheese, they are best paired with Fresh, Semi-Hard and Hard cheese. They can be paired with some Bloomy Rind cheese, but successful matches are more difficult.


Food Pairing - German Style Riesling

With a light body, relatively low alcohol and high acidity softened by a touch of sweetness German Rieslings make very stylish aperitifs and compliment many foods. Excellent with simply cooked seafood dishes with a light sauce and as a foil for dishes with a spicy heat. Also very good with poultry and veal. Avoid red meats and rich sauces. In relation to cheese pair with Fresh and Washed Rind cheese. Medium-dry Spätlese versions with more body can be good with Blue and Smoked cheese.


  • German - Mosel Riesling (Kerpen Riesling 2013)
  • German - Pfalz Riesling
  • French - Alsace Riesling (Fleisher Riesling)
  • NZ - Central Otago Riesling (Locharburn Riesling 2013)
  • NZ - Marlborough (Dashwood Riesling 2014)
  • Australia Clare Valley Riesling (Pikes Traditionelle Riesling)