Riesling is well-established as the darling of Sommeliers; it's a fantastic wine with a range of styles, making it the ideal varietal for people with sorts of flavor preferences. With its affinity for showcasing terroir, ability to age, and its overall approachability and food friendliness, it’s no wonder that Riesling is a must-have on any wine list.
Riesling is most associated with Germany, where it has been beautifully cultivated since at least the 1400s (when the first written record of the grape was documented) but likely much earlier. As one of the most northerly viticulture areas of the world, Germany numbers among the “cool climate” wine growing countries. This is perfect for Riesling, to maintain its crisp acidity and bright aromas.
WHAT IS RIESLING?
Riesling is an aromatic white grape variety. A common misconception with Riesling is that it’s all sweet — this is absolutely false. It comes in a wide range of styles that range from bone dry to very sweet. Germany even has their own scale to indicate the residual sugar, or sweetness, of a German Riesling.
Commonly, you’ll find notes of lime, green apple, peach, and white flower. Sweeter styles will also have notes of honeycomb, beeswax, and, when aged, even a mind-blowing petroleum-like aroma.
It’s important to note that when balanced, residual sugar combined with bright acidity produces out-of-this-world wine that is perfect for sipping solo or with just about any food dish.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND A GERMAN WINE LABEL
German wine labels identify both quality and ripeness (which can often indicate sweetness) levels on the label.
GERMAN RIESLING QUALITY CATEGORIES
The first thing to understand about German Riesling is their quality categories. Quality assessment is broken down into four categories, which have strict guidelines for how the wine is produced.
Deutscher Wein: Wine without a geographical designation. 100% from Germany. Vintage and/or varietal not required to be included on label. As German winemakers place more and more emphasis on quality, relatively few wines are produced at this level.
Landwein: From 1 of 26 larger regions in Germany. The Landwein region must be named on the wine label. Mainly produced dry or semi-dry.
Qualitätswein: Wine must be made from one of Germany’s 13 official wine growing regions. The region must be declared on the label and the wines can only be made from German-approved varietals.
Prädikatswein: Everything from the Qualitätswein level, AND, of a more superior quality and higher requirements. Enrichment, the use of oak chips, and dealcoholization are all prohibited. Wines are then qualified by ripeness level & harvest type, which is described below (this is called a “Prädikat”, or special attribute). Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein account for the majority of German wines, especially in the U.S. market.
Note: There are even more terms you might see on a label as part of other independent organization’s classification system, such as“Grosses Gewächs.”
GERMAN RIESLING SWEET TO DRY
The most important German wine term to know is “Trocken,”as this word always indicates a dry wine
Trocken/Selection: dry wine; “selection” is specifically for the wines of Rheingau that have been hand-harvested. These have ~9 g/l residual sugar (RS) or less.
Halbtrocken: translates to “half dry”, meaning that this is a slightly sweet wine. Less than 15 g/l RS. You may also seen Feinherb on a label, which is an unofficial term to describe an off-dry wine similar to Halbtrocken. Note that Germanwines’high acidity helps balance any residual sugar, making the wine taste drier!
The following terms indicating sweeter wines are less commonly used:
Liebliche: A sweet wine with up to 45 g/l RS.
Süss: A sweet with up more than 45 g/l RS.
Hint: if a sweetness indication cannot be found on a label, check the alcohol level. Generally, the lower the alcohol content, the higher the residual sugar. Nerd fact… this is because as the yeast “eats” the sugar during fermentation, sugar levels decrease and convert into alcohol. They trade off!
GERMAN RIESLING RIPENESS LEVELS
Ripeness levels and sweetness levels are often confused when it comes to reading and understanding a German Riesling label. They often go hand-in-hand, however, as a grape’s ripeness is correlated to how much sugar it has available. The riper the grape, the more sugar it develops. That said, Kabinett and Spätlese grapes can be vinified completely dryregardless of ripeness level. In this case, they will be labeled Kabinett Trocken or Spätlese Trocken.
Only wines classified as Prädikatswein will have ripeness levels indicated on the label. Most German wines in the U.S. will fall under this category.
Kabinett: The lightest style of Riesling, made from grapes that are harvested at normal harvest time. These will range from dry to off-dry.
Spätlese: Translates to “late harvest”. This means the grapes hang on the vines longer, developing more sugar concentration. These wines are full of rich flavors and often sweeter than Kabinett, however, if you see “Trocken” on the label, it’s dry with increased alcohol. The winemaker has fermented the wine to dry.
Auslese: Translates to “select harvest”. Picked even more ripe, grapes are hand-selected and sometimes have noble rot. Again, wines are typically, but not always sweeter, as the winemaker may ferment most of the sugars out.
Beerenauslese (BA): Translates to “Berry select harvest”. Wines are rare because the grapes are overripe and have developed noble rot. These are only produced in exceptional years with optimal weather patterns. Wines in this category are notable for their longevity and can age for decades.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): Translates to “Dry berry select harvest”. These wines also have extraordinary longevity. Raisinated grapes that have dried out on the vines and were affected by noble rot.
Eiswein: Translates to “ice wine”. The most rare wine of the group, this indicates that the grapes were frozen on the vine, then pressed still frozen. The grapes must be as ripe as Beerenauslese, and are harvested only during exact weather conditions.
WHAT DOES GERMAN RIESLING TASTE LIKE?
Below are a few of my favorite German Rieslings in various styles, and my tasting notes for each!
2016 Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Trocken, Nahe
A dry and elegant wine with delicate peach and citrus aromas. The finish packs a powerful punch, with a long, ripe, crisp but mouth-watering lingering sensation.
This wine is from the family’s original vineyard and holds a special place in their heart. “Tonschiefer” means “clay slate”; this wine is named for the soil that dominates the vineyard.
2016 Leitz Eins Zwei Dry Riesling Trocken, Rheingau
A wonderful dry Riesling that provides an accessible entry into sampling German wines. Remember from the information above, “Trocken” is a dry light-style Riesling that has been hand-harvested from Rheingau. You’ll find this bottle extremely aromatic with tart green apple, a hint of kumquat and apricot together with a touch of lime blossom.
The grapes are grown in a cross-section of various Rheingau loess and clay soils in the Johannisberg appellation.
2016 St. Urbans-Hof Nik Weis Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett, Mosel
This wine is in the Prädikatswein category, and therefore has a ripeness designation: Kabinett. This light, dry style of Riesling is produced by a third-generation winemaking family. Grapes are grown on a steep, southwest-facing hill slope that gets plenty of sunlight; the cool winds coming down the hills influence the grapes’ ripening by forcing them to produce aromatic potential rather than high sugar levels.
You’ll find aromatic floral notes plentiful in this wine: Elderflower, lilac, violet, and rose abound. There’s also a certain smoky minerality to the wine. It’s both refined, yet playful.
2012 Müller-Catoir Haardter Bürgergarten Riesling Spätlese, Pfalz
This wine is also in the Prädikatswein category, and therefore has a ripeness designation: Spätlese. I’m a sucker for rieslings with residual sugar but a strong acid backbone to balance it out. These can be some of the most food-friendly wines (my favorite pairing? Simple mac’n’cheese).
In the glass you’ll find a fruit-forward wine followed by green notes. Think dried apricots, juicy pears, crisp apple, and dried raisins, on top of a creamy icecream. Then add in a dash of minerality. Its deep golden-yellow color is also noteworthy.