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What is Riesling?

Toasting with glasses of Riesling.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 18 July 2014
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Riesling is a white grape used in producing white wine throughout the world. Like the somewhat similar Gewurztraminer, Riesling is considered an excellent starting wine for those interested in developing their palettes or an appreciation of white wine. Riesling has, more than any other wine, gained an undeserved negative reputation. In many connoisseur's opinions, it is among the finest of the white grapes, and yet in the minds of many, it is demonized as a dull, sickly-sweet wine of little or no character.

This sad turn of events can be directly traced to two main causes. First, and most importantly, the name Riesling has been used to label a slew of other grape varieties, all of them of far lower quality than Riesling itself. These include the grapes known as Welschriesling, Laski Rizling, Clare Rieslin, Lustomer Riesling, and others so numerous they cannot all be mentioned. This drift of the name has led many wine drinkers to horrible experiences with a wine they then label in their memory as Riesling – attaching these understandably negative feelings to the innocent Johannisberg Riesling. Secondly, until recently the bulk of exported Rieslings were from Germany, and the bulk of these were overly sweet, rather vapid offerings meant for mass-market distribution rather than to showcase the virtues of this exceptional grape.

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True Riesling, however, is a joy of a white wine. More than nearly any other white wine, it has the potential to age over long periods of time and transform into a truly noble specimen – on a par with even a red Bordeaux. Riesling, like Gewurztraminer, has an exceptional ability to take the distinctive flavors of its local environment and weather and transfer them to the drinker through the wine. This communication of terroir is one of the crucial elements of great wine production, and Riesling’s ability to do it with relatively little coaxing is an enormous boon for the grape.

Rieslings most often taste of fruit with a healthy dose of acidity, and occasional metallic tones. Over time, the fruit recedes somewhat with the sweetness of the wine, leaving a tarter wine. Towards the end of its lifespan, Riesling begins to take on an aroma of slight kerosene and mineral flourishes. Riesling is one of those white grapes, susceptible to the noble rot of botrytis, used to make the extremely sweet dessert wines that are a hot item in some circles. Indeed, Riesling was the grape with which botrytis was first discovered near the end of the 18th century, and these late-harvest Rieslings are often among the most expensive of the bunch.

Riesling prefers cooler climates, hence its popularity in Germany and the Alsace region of France. It is also grown in parts of California, the Eden and Clare Valleys in Australia, and small sections of South Africa and New Zealand. Though Riesling still has some slandering to work off, it appears that its popularity is once again on the rise in the United States, and more and more people are beginning to understand that this grape is not just meant to make wines suitable for dessert, but to give birth to truly exceptional white wines worthy of comparison with any of the greats.

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