Riesling: More Than Your Grandma’s Sweet Wine

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The white wine dates back to the 15th century and goes with just about everything.
By Amy Payne July 2011 Wine

With the many intricacies that Riesling has to offer, calling it merely a summer wine is almost a slap in the face. But with recent consumer awareness and the backing of the sommelier community, it is a wine you cannot neglect on this summer’s selections.

“It goes with everything” was the marketing campaign that Blue Nun used to storm the U.S. markets in the mid-1980s, selling 1.5 million cases in its peak year. They got one thing right: Riesling is one of the most versatile wines to pair with food. But they also tainted the consumer opinion of the grape.

Many consumers today associate Riesling with the mass-produced, semisweet Liebfraumilch, a blend of primarily high-yielding grapes such as Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Exported German wines have come a long way since “grandma’s sweet wine” Blue Nun, and Riesling is finally starting to get some credit.

Riesling dates back to the 15th century in Rheingau and is nearly every sommelier’s desert island wine.

“I always get a raised eyebrow when I tell people my favorite grape varietal is Riesling,” says Alpana Singh, master sommelier and director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago.  “People usually think it is a cheap wine. The average consumer has been trained to stay away from sweet wines, thinking they aren’t sophisticated.”

Eddie Osterland, America’s first master sommelier, attributes a 1966 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling feinste Auslese to his career choice in wine, coining it as his light bulb wine.

“It grabbed me by my senses and said slow down,” Osterland says.

There are two kinds of Riesling drinkers: the white Zinfandel sweet wine lovers and the true wine geeks. The dichotomy between consumer and professional opinions leaves Riesling as one of the best-kept secrets in the wine industry.

Damon Goldstein, owner of San Diego-based German wine importing company Truly Fine Wines Inc., says his biggest challenge has been defeating the consumer misconception of the varietal.

“Riesling is a polarized grape consumed by the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent,” Goldstein says. “The 90 percent in the middle don’t know the first thing about Riesling.”

Riesling used to fetch higher prices than first-growth Bordeaux. In 1890 a case of Château Lafitte sold for 40 shillings, while a case of wine from the Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard sold for 63 shillings.

According to the Pacific Rim Riesling Wine Rules pamphlet, Riesling exports from Germany have been on the rise since 2001, with the U.S. becoming its second-largest export market. Sommeliers are the front-runners of its resurgence.

“It’s really not just one grape, it’s a bunch of different grapes depending on the style that you are playing with,” says Shayn Bjornholm, master sommelier and education director of the Washington State Wine Commission.

Riesling is classified as a noble varietal because of its diversity, age worthiness, complexity of aromatics, expression of place, historical relevance, acidity and food pairing qualities. It has the widest range in style of any other white grape: from sparkling to still wine, bone dry to ice wine and tba, and between 6.5 percent and 14 percent alcohol.

“There are not many $20 wines that could age for 100 years,” says Geoff Kruth, master sommelier and wine director of Sonoma’s Farmhouse Inn. “What you get for your money is remarkable.”

According to Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World Wine School, 90 percent of wines produced today are meant to be consumed within one year of bottling. Riesling is one of the few white grapes that come into its own with age, developing secondary and tertiary aromas. It makes for a wise investment as a buyer because you don’t have to worry about selling it quickly.

The Germans make their wine like they make their cars: with precision. Twenty percent of Germany’s vineyards are planted with Riesling, most of which is on steep mountainside slopes to increase sun exposure. This demands hand harvesting and makes rich soils scarce because of rain-caused avalanches. “It is noble because it’s a diva and needs the right conditions to grow well,” Singh says.

Because Riesling needs the perfect conditions to thrive, there is not any more area to expand production in Germany. The majority of winemakers produce only 50–75,000 bottles a year, which is mostly consumed locally or throughout Europe. The laws of supply and demand would say that Riesling is a hot commodity.

Unlike any other grape, Riesling expresses a unique place.


Germany is a major producer of sparkling wine and the Barth estate is among its top producers.

Fernando Beteta, master sommelier and education director for Chicago’s Tenzing Wine and Spirits, says it serves as an amplifier of terroir, meaning it is a blank canvas for the soil and climate to express itself.

Riesling is also known for having lower alcohol and piercingly high acidity, food pairings best friend. We have all heard of pairing Riesling with complex, spicy cuisines like Thai food, but it’s time to start thinking out of the box.

“Its structure lends itself to different foods more than any other wine,” Kruth says.

Try Korean barbecue and beef short ribs. The Riesling cuts through the fat and complements the charred flavors, mirin, soy and brown sugar. Other pairing ideas include bright summer sauces, grilled vegetables and barbecued meats or salty pork dishes.

The first 100 percent Riesling vineyard was planted in 1716 at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau, thus the origin of the term Johannisberg Riesling. It is hard to classify a grape with such a strong history as simply a summer quaffer. But the lower alcohol levels make it an optimal choice for drinking under the sun.

“Riesling can make a good porch pounder,” Bjornholm says. “The higher acidity leaves you feeling quenched and lifted up instead of weighted down.”

To target the 90 percent of consumers who are still out of the Riesling loop, you must know your audience.

The two largest groups of wine consumers are the baby boomers, at 77 million, and the millennium generation, at 70 million. Zraly says that of the two, the millennium is consuming the most.

According to Kruth, the best way to appeal to the consumer is to either use appropriate pairings or sell the wines old enough so the sweetness is not as obvious. He also says it is important to not push Riesling on the wrong people.

“Once they get it in the glass, the majority of folks usually dig it,” says Bjornholm.

Riesling is grown in many regions around the world. Although Germany is often considered the benchmark, other regions to look for include Washington State, New York, New Zealand, Austria and Alsace.

“People are starting to understand the grape and trust sommeliers. I am looking forward to the future of Riesling blowing up,” Bjornholm says.