Newfound appreciation for the dry, crisp flavours of riesling have seen the grape’s popularity surge in recent years, but its historical importance is far deeper-seated than this recent flood of appreciation might suggest. 

Known in some parts of the world – including its home of Germany – as ‘the king of grapes’, riesling produces white wines of unparalleled depth and presence. One of the only white grapes inclined to get better with age, riesling does this not just well, but exceptionally.
The taste profile of riesling is dependent on a number of factors, and the final product can be anything from particularly sweet to particularly dry. As a terroir-expressive wine, taste is largely determined by the area in which the grapes are grown. And with significant plantings in almost every wine-producing country in the world, the range of available riesling experiences is nothing short of stunning.
A feat of German engineering
The uniqueness of riesling can perhaps be put down to the fact that it is one of the rare grapes that didn’t get its start on French hillsides. It was rather the small German principality of Rüsselsheim (on the Rhine River near Frankfurt) that lays claim to the first riesling production, with documents mentioning the variety as early as 1435.
DNA fingerprinting has identified the parents of riesling as gouais blanc (a Croatian grape that is rare today, but was widely planted in the Middle Ages) and a cross between traminer and a wild variety. It is presumed that the grape originated in the Rhine, although in reality it could have originated anywhere between there and the coasts of the Adriatic Sea.
The Rhine Valley is still thought to produce the finest examples of riesling to this day, with its aged dry offerings held in particularly high esteem. The Alsace region of France is considered an almost equally iconic riesling region, however.
The original Australian white
Before the chardonnay boom of the 80s and 90s and the subsequent rise in popularity of sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, Australia’s white wine industry leant heavily on the shoulders of riesling. While William McArthur is credited with planting the first commercial vines near Penrith in 1838, the rush of German settlers to South Australia in the mid-1800s served to truly establish the variety as an Australian staple.
Mount Barker, the Clare Valley and the cooler Eden Valley proved happy hunting grounds for the resolute Germans, and these remain Australia’s most fruitful riesling regions to this day. The area Australia devotes to riesling is second only to Germany.
The rush of the lighter and less complex whites of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay has put Australian riesling in the shade in recent decades, but with palates developing around the nation the unique proposition that riesling brings to the table is once again gaining recognition.
“While William McArthur is credited with planting the first commercial vines near Penrith in 1838, the rush of German settlers to South Australia in the mid-1800s served to truly establish the variety as an Australian staple.”

As red as a white wine can be

The riesling proposition can almost be seen as that of a red wine over a white. It can be aged for up to 100 years – a period longer than most reds. It features intense aromas and flavours that are incredibly dynamic, and hint at the region in which the grapes were grown.
It is almost always bottled in its 100% varietal form; the only real exception is its part in the traditional German table wine liebfraumilch (‘maiden’s milk’).
The reason to try riesling
The taste of riesling is best enjoyed ‘fridge cold’ – around the 4C to 6C range. Intense orchard fruit aromas, like those of apricot, nectarine, apple and pear, will rise from the glass. Earlier picked riesling will feature a distinctly citric edge.
The finest aged rieslings will offer a taste and aroma that many compare with diesel or petrol. While this may not sound particularly appetising, it has come to represent one of the ultimate acquired tastes in the wine world.
Like many a white wine, a chilled riesling pairs particularly well with the spicy dishes of India and Thailand. Many a sommelier has highlighted spiced duck leg as the ultimate riesling food match.

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Riesling titbits

  • Riesling is universally low in alcohol, no matter where it’s made, how it’s produced or how long it has been aged.
  • Germany is home to no less than 60% of the world’s riesling vines! Despite being grown all over the world, the acreage devoted to riesling is actually quite minor. Despite Australia being the second largest producer of riesling in the world, it is just our 8th most grown grape.
  • The first documentation of riesling in 1435 was actually the world’s first recorded varietal sale.