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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Riesling

Riesling grapes on vine / Getty

There are few grape varieties more fervently worshipped yet sorely misunderstood than Riesling.

The supreme shape shifter of the wine world, Riesling can be totally dry or lusciously sweet, still or sparkling. Its nose can be lavishly floral or stony and earthen. Its gloriously fruity, electric flavors can lend perceptions of sweetness despite zero residual sugar. Its extract can masquerade volume and texture far beyond its alcoholic footprint.

This multifaceted persona makes Riesling a darling of wine critics and sommeliers. For consumers, however, the lack of a singular, dependable identity can create confusion.

Riesling originates from the Rhine Valley region of Germany, where documented history of the wine exists as far back as 1435. Germany remains the most copious and heralded producer of the grape, but the variety has also flourished worldwide. Whether in France, Austria, Australia or the United States, Riesling is a conduit of terroir, translating effects of soil and climate into distinctive, delicious wines.

As an introduction to the diverse world of Riesling, organize a tasting from three categories: dry versus sweet, young versus old and Germany versus Washington.

As you compare each flight, look for classic aromas, flavors and textures. Does the nose suggest blossoms and peaches or smoke and stone? Is it bracingly tart like lime or green apple, or tropical and luscious like pineapple or mango? Is the palate dry or sweet?

We’ve outlined some suggestions to try. If you can’t find exact matches, ask your favorite retailer to recommend alternatives.

Chateau St. Michelle Riesling bottle / Photo Courtesy Chateau St. Michelle

Dry vs. Sweet Riesling

One of the biggest misconceptions about Riesling is that it’s always sweet. Yet dry styles are produced in every Riesling region worldwide. In areas like Rheinhessen or Franken in Germany, Alsace in France or throughout Austria, dry expressions of Riesling are the dominant style.

Many consumers eschew Riesling because they’re unsure whether a given bottle of Riesling will be sweet or dry.

To ease confusion, Riesling producers are increasingly labeling their wines dry, off dry, semisweet or sweet. In German-speaking regions, look for wines labeled trocken for dry wines, with residual sugar (RS) of less than 9 grams per liter (g/L). Feinherb or halbtrocken suggest small amounts of RS, typically 9–18 g/L.

Kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenausles and eiswein all indicate wines produced from late-harvest grapes with concentrated levels of sugar. Kabinett is typically off dry or semidry, but some producers use kabinett trocken to signify a dry wine produced from very ripe, late-harvest grapes.