One Man, 40 Rieslings

Dissecting a misunderstood grape, one bottle at a time


There's an argument to be made for Riesling, and it's made on a regular basis. It goes something like this: Riesling is great, it's flexible and it's food friendly, with wines ranging from dry to syrupy sweet, so there's something for everyone to like. This has been the argument of the day for years now. Trouble is Riesling still finds resistance in the marketplace.
There's an argument to explain that as well. It’s the same argument that I’ve often posited as an explanation of Shiraz's market shortcomings. It goes something like this: the reason people don't buy Shiraz is because they are confused by it; since it’s made in so many different styles, a buyer doesn't always know what they're gonna get.
So variety is supposedly a selling point for one wine while it's one of the fundamental problems for another. This sounds like it speaks more of the mindset of those who talk about wine than any marketplace truism.
Riesling’s True Potential
Here's something else that both Syrah and Riesling share: a lot of wine that is fine, but just doesn't wow me. In fact Riesling seems like a wine that often fails to wow me. For me, it's the sugar, that crutch, so easily making a wine taste "good," so hard to make it “feel” good. What I mean is that while most wines tend to be easily described in two dimensions, structure and flavor, the third dimension—texture—really comes into play with sweet wines.
Perhaps that's why I can be a sucker for dry Riesling, not necessarily bone dry Rieslings, but dry enough to be neither sweet nor heavy in the mouth. Once the sugar in a wine becomes noticeable, it really takes a fine hand in the vineyard and in the cellar to produce a wine where the acid balance is such that you get an exciting sweet/tart experience on the palate.
Even if you hit that sweet/tart sweet spot, you're still not out of the woods with these wines; you still need to be able to produce a wine where the sweetness doesn't obscure the nuance and terroir of the wines. And that is the problem with Riesling; too many producers aren't able to keep the wines exciting and lively in the mouth while revealing the full potential of the grape.
This is a bit heretical in the wine world. I’m supposed to be telling you that Riesling is great, the next big thing. And of course a lot of Riesling is great; the trouble is a lot of Riesling is also pretty ordinary, and it can be confusing to try and figure out what you're getting when you buy a bottle. This handy guide to deciphering German wine labels can help with that last point, though there's just not much to do about the first.
Training Wines
The truth is that while little truly bad wine is being sold these days, there are plenty of wines that meet some minimum standards but do little more. For most people, these are gateway wines. White Zinfandel is a great example, a wine that served to introduce millions to wine while never being taken seriously among the cognoscenti. It just may be that Riesling has assumed some of the heavy lifting on that front.
There are pros and cons to taking point in the wine world. Yes, millions try you first, but it's not as though people were clamoring for a better White Zin after they grew bored of their first. No, they moved on. There was an understanding that sweet little White Zin was the training wheels; once you're ready to ditch them, you don't look for another set.
Riesling has become the training wheels, and people are still prepared to move on from sweet wines once those training wheels come off. Add to that the fact that the wines being used in training, while perfectly fine, are often uninspiring and barely hint at the true potential of Riesling, and you have a perfect storm for the abandonment of the grape.
A Fresh Take on Riesling
Why have I bothered with all this you're asking? Just an attempt to reframe the discussion about Riesling. Riesling has not fulfilled its full potential in the marketplace, not because it's sweet or difficult to understand (those play a role), but rather because often as not it’s uninspiring and drinkers don't return to it because they crave some variety.
So what? That’s another good question, and one that brings me to the point. We should be celebrating Riesling’s diversity, not its shortcomings. One of the byproducts of the marketplace resistance it faces is particularly attractive pricing. You can find some really great Riesling well priced between $15 and $30 or so. We should be trying them, and not just the great Rieslings of Germany and Austria I might add, but also those from Oregon, Australia and all places in between.
One last piece of the Riesling puzzle: there seems to be an unusual snobbery when it comes to Riesling. There are many people out there who turn their noses at anything but German and perhaps Austrian Riesling. Certainly, there are some grapes that really do excel in a very small region of the world, but Riesling is not one of them.
There are great rieslings around the globe, in myriad styles, and while I will admit that the best German versions are tops in my book, so many outperform other wines at their price points that one really has to wonder why they haven’t grabbed hold of a bigger market share. The dry Australian versions are also fabulous, and the world’s sweeter styles, when that acid/sugar balance is right, are sufficiently attractive for their early fruit that maybe we shouldn't be overly concerned with their limited terroir. Just drink them young and enjoy them.
There are several standout wines here, making for a robust top 10 list, but at the same time there were over 40 wines tasted for this article, and some that missed the top are 10 worth a look due to their attractive price-to-quality ratios.

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Top Ten Best Rieslings

Alexana Riesling Willamette Valley Revana Vineyard (2011)
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Pewsey Vale Dry Riesling Eden Valley (2012)
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Jim Barry the Lodge Hill Dry Riesling (2010)
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Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling (2011)
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Dr. Fischer Riesling Kabinett Ockfener Bockstein (2010)
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Georg Albrecht Schneider Riesling Spätlese Niersteiner Hipping (2011)
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Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Riesling Spätlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr (2010)
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Dr. H Thanisch Bernkasteler Doctor Riesling Kabinett (2010)
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Wittmann Riesling Trocken (2010)
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Balthasar Ress Riesling Trocken Von Unserm (2010)
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Mentioned in this article


  • I had a 2009 Eifel Pfiefer Kabinett last night that paired exceptionally well with a pork loin roast with port & fig sauce. I was searching specifically for something to serve with the roast so I can't give any nuanced details about the wine by itself but it brought the entire meal together beautifully including the spinanch salad with strawberries, blue cheese crumbles and walnuts with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing; the baked sweet potato chips; and the pork roast.

    Mar 14, 2013 at 3:04 PM

  • Snooth User: winekrep
    143676 27

    I remember drinking some superb Austrian Rieslings in the mid eighties that had been chaptalized to raise the alcohol level...they were ten years old at the time and amazing. Haven't seen any Riesling specific wines from Austria in some time. I do recall that Rieslings age very well and develop remarkable noses over time. As a chef it's wonderful to find wines that are food compatible and Spatlese and drier examples work well.

    Mar 14, 2013 at 3:56 PM

  • Did Alsace just become a little, insignificant producer if Rieslings? Very surprised there was no mention.

    Mar 14, 2013 at 4:02 PM

  • Snooth User: hestamm
    1176940 24

    Riesling is my absolute favorite white wine; the sweeter the better. Living in Idaho, I have access to the wonderful rieslings of Chateau Ste Michelle, Hogue, & other NW producers, with most priced in the $6-10 range. It's not that I disdain the beerenausleses or even the spateleses from Germany or the Alsace, it's that I don't want to pay the freight. But my tastes are probably not typical--I love big bold tannic reds, over-the-top oaky & buttery chards (think Rombauer as an entry level), port, oloroso sherry, & incredible sweet rieslings & gewurtztraminers. Fried chicken goes best with either a great champagne or a sweet riesling. Go figure.

    Mar 14, 2013 at 10:46 PM

  • Snooth User: RBrumer
    772167 24

    hestamm......what about you're native St Chappelle??
    have not tasted in some time, but I see Blake Grey gave the Riesling a good review last year. New owners now with Precept?????

    Mar 15, 2013 at 1:15 PM

  • Snooth User: hestamm
    1176940 24

    Oh, St Chappelle most certainly. There are also more boutique brands like the Snake River Winery that do wonders with the grape (but pricier, too).

    Mar 15, 2013 at 1:54 PM

  • I visited Georg Albrecht Schneider and wrote about my visit on schiller-wine: Cheers

    Mar 15, 2013 at 4:37 PM

  • Pewsey Vale and the Jim Barry Lodge Hill are two of my favorites! I love the diversity of this wonderful grape variety and its ability to pair with such an array of foods from oysters to spicy thai dishes. Australia's ability to produce gloriously dry wines that show true examples of local 'terroir' whilst expressing that wonderful zingy acidity and varietal character. Pewsey Vale and Jim Barry Wines have perfected this style! Viva la Riesling!

    Mar 15, 2013 at 6:09 PM

  • Snooth User: Sweetstuff
    Hand of Snooth
    139592 254

    Is the Docotr Thanisch wine from the estate that belongs to the VDP or the other Thanisch estate?

    John Trombley

    Mar 17, 2013 at 5:06 PM

  • Snooth User: Sweetstuff
    Hand of Snooth
    139592 254

    Good to see that you've finally gotten a review in for a Michigan Riesling. The northern Lake Michigan Shore near Traverse City is an ideal RIesling territory and the vines, now decades old, are now mature enough to make great wines.

    The 'unusual' flavor you speak of is not so unusual after all. It's simply the resinous 'terroir' note common to all low-yield dry whites, especially Riesling, from this area. I often liken it to the smell of fresh handmade paper, and is common to Riesling grown on mixed glacial till and fossilized coral reef such was what is called 'Petoskey Stone'. A little later harvest balances this out, but most of the dry whites from this house, Bower's Harbor, Left Foot Charley, and several other high-quality producers on the two peninsulas (Old Mission and Leelanau) so intensely surrounded by lake effect. The wines to look out for are the small-lot single vineyard productions that the younger winemakers are using to showcase their talents, and which are a relative steal in terms of quality.

    Mar 17, 2013 at 5:20 PM

  • Snooth User: Pfificus
    600233 32

    I certainly agree with bikesnwine. Alsace excells in making dry Rieslings, pairing beutifully with a broad varieties of dishes. The great ones even age very well despite their dryness.

    Mar 19, 2013 at 3:21 PM

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