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A Simple Guide to German Riesling: Flatiron Wines’ German Riesling 101

This week Riesling is the talk of the town. In conjunction with Rieslingfeier this weekend, we at Flatiron are embracing the opportunity to talk about one of the world's favorite wines: German Riesling. Not everyone has been able to take a deep dive on Riesling, so our first post will give you the basics. Keep watching our site this week for a few more posts about Riesling. And, if you aren't already, sign up for our newsletter so as not to miss out on the Rieslings we're featuring at a deep discount.

Welcome to Riesling 101! 

What is Riesling?

Riesling is a noble white grape that makes aromatic white wines.

Riesling grapes make a huge range of still, white wines ranging from bone-dry to unctuously sweet. Riesling is famously good at giving a taste of the terroir in which it is grown. So, for example, Riesling grown in France’s Alsace region will taste very different from Riesling grown in Germany.

Where does Riesling grow?

Riesling probably originated in Germany many centuries ago, but is grown today in much of the wine producing world, including: Germany, Austria, France, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada.

What’s special about German Riesling?

No country focuses on Riesling like Germany. Top producers, top regions and top vineyards are all devoted to the grape. There are German Rieslings for everyone from the first-time wine drinker to the geekiest wine geek.

Is German Riesling Sweet?

Some German Rieslings are sweet, some are bone dry, and most fall somewhere in between.

How can I tell if a German Riesling is sweet or dry?

German labels can be a little confusing, but for a quick way to get a sense of whether a German Riesling is dry or sweet, just check out the alcohol level: the higher the alcohol, the drier the wines; the lower the alcohol, the sweeter.

So, if a wine’s alcohol is above, say, 12.5% or 13%, it’s dry. If it’s under about 11%, it will have at least a touch of sweetness.

Now, if it’s in the middle, it can be tough to tell just how sweet a wine is. It will really help to know just a few German words to look out for, starting with Trocken, which is German for dry. Obviously, if you see Trocken on a Riesling label, the wine is dry. Likewise, any wine that says Grosses Gewachs is dry.

There are also words that mean a wine is at least a tiny bit sweet, like Feinherb. Other words, like Spatlese and Auslese, usually mean that a wine is sweet--unless the label also says Trocken or  Grosses Gewachs -- in which case it’s dry.

Why are alcohol and sugar levels inversely related? Because you make alcohol in wine by letting yeasts convert sugar into alcohol and CO2. The more sugar the yeasts eat, the more alcohol they produce and the less sugar is left for the drinker.

What does German Riesling smell and taste like?

Many different things! Depending on where the German Riesling comes from and how ripe the grapes got, Riesling wines can have aromas and flavors ranging from (on the less ripe end) lime and other citrus, through apple-y flavors, all the way to stone fruit and even tropical aromas (at the riper end).

Germany’s best rieslings grow on very stony sites and are famous for also having intense mineral notes.

As Riesling ages, it develops complex flavors including a signature “petrol” note.

Why are German Rieslings so diverse?

The world’s greatest grapes taste different depending on where they’re grown. Factors like the kind of soils the vines grow in, the altitude, climate and exposition all make the final product taste a little different. That’s why Pinot Noir tastes very different when it’s grown in California than in Burgundy’s Vosne Romanee.

The name for the factors that contribute to these unique tastes is “terroir.” No grape does a better job than Riesling of tasting like the particular terroir in which it was grown. Wine geeks call grapes that do this “terroir-transparent.” Riesling is very terroir-transparent.

German Riesling is very diverse for two reasons. First, because German Riesling grows in some very diverse terroirs, and because Riesling is so terroir-transparent, wines from different regions will taste distinct. Second, because German Riesling is made in many different styles and ripeness levels, you can find German Rieslings of many different sweetness levels.

Is German Riesling expensive?

Not for what you get! In fact, German Rieslings offer some of the best values in the world of wine.

It’s true some German Rieslings are super expensive. But they’re rare, even though back in the day, German Rieslings were as expensive and sought-after as the very best Burgundies.

That’s just not the case anymore. The wines are out of fashion, which means they offer great values. You can find bottles under $40 dollars that offer the kind of complexity, intellectual excitement and straight-up deliciousness that would cost way more than three times that if you were buying Burgundy.

But look out: fashions change... and this one is changing fast! German wines are more and more talked about among wine geeks and tastemakers in the restaurant and culinary worlds. Already, top producers that we used to be able to stock year-round are now entirely pre-sold. Prices are creeping up.

It’s a great time to buy German Riesling, but the value window may close soon.

Can I drink German Riesling with Food?

Absolutely! It’s one of the best wines for food. No wine is better suited to a wide variety of hard-to-pair foods, from traditional German pork products, to complex Asian dishes and the modern haut cuisines blending of the two with novel techniques. German wines elevate the dinner as they enrapture the diner.

Dry examples are great substitutes for Sancerre or other crisp, dry whites. A fine glass of Trocken Riesling can enliven any simple fish dish. But Riesling’s real magical culinary powers come out when you look at hard-to-pair foods, especially spicy ones like Thai or Chinese.

The spice and sugar in those foods can make red wines taste austere or metallic, and dry white wines sour or just washed out. Rieslings with a bit of sugar will stand up to the sweetness and even temper the heat. The mineral cut and bracing acidity are like a squeeze of lime on southeast asian food, bringing out details and making you want more all the time.

You need to try it to believe it!

Do vintages in Germany matter?

Yes, but with a run of great vintages from 2015-2018, there’s all kinds of great stuff to chose from.

Give it to me straight: Why should I care about German Riesling?

  • Incredible values.
  • Delicious wines with a unique and ancient history.
  • Terroir-transparent wines expressing varied and unique sites
  • An incredible string of vintages from 2015, 2016, 2017 and, now, 2018
  • One of the most perfect food wines imaginable; wines that pair with everything from classic French food to spicy Asian cuisines.

Is German Riesling complicated to understand?

We’re going to make it simple for you! A deep dive into the intricacies of German wine can be complicated, but the basics aren’t that hard to wrap your head around. Over the next few blog posts we’ll show you how.

Keys to understanding German Riesling:

  • Regions. Germany is a country of wine regions. France has Bordeaux, Burgundy etc., and Germany has:
    • The Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz and Rhenheissen (and many more!)
  • Sweetness/Ripeness. Unlike France or Italy (or most wine countries) German wines from a single vineyard can run the gamut from bone-dry to unctuously sweet. German wine laws have categories (e.g. Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese) to help you understand what’s in a bottle.
  • Producers. Germany has generations-old wineries (and winemakers) preserving ancient traditions. But it has also enjoyed an explosion of interest among super-talented young winemakers who are rediscovering old traditions and terroirs, as well as breaking new ground in response to changing circumstances (including global warming).