the Riesling enigma

It is quite hard to know where to start when contemplating Riesling. Let us begin with the history of the wine, followed by some wine facts on potential ageing and finish trying to explain why we can start a dinner with a bone dry Riesling and finish with a Noble Riesling dessert wine … And have you heard about Red Riesling?

Lets start with some historical facts

Riesling is the oldest recorded grape variety. There are several mentions of Riesling in the 15th century, one in 1402 in the records of the city of Worms in Germany and the next dates from 1435 and is an entry to the accounts of Graf Johannes of Katzenelnbogen (try to pronounce that ) in Rüsselsheim on the river Rhein, close to one of today's premium Riesling regions, the Rheingau. It records the amount of ’22 Schillings for Seczreben Rießlingen in de Wingarten’ (Riesling cuttings for the wine garden).


Today's spelling of Riesling was first documented in Hieronymus Brock's Latin Herbarium in 1552. In 1787 the Archbishop of Trier on the river Mosel ordered that all vines be replaced with superior Riesling cuttings, and by the 1850s, Riesling wine became so fashionable and sought-after that it commanded a higher price than Bordeaux Clarets and Champagne from France. 

Just a quick note on the parentage of the grape variety curtesy of Wikipedia;

DNA fingerprinting by Ferdinand Regner indicated that one parent of Riesling is Gouais blanc, known in Germany as ‘Weißer Heunisch’, a variety that, while rare today, was widely grown by the French and German peasantry of the Middle Ages. The other parent is a cross between a wild Grapevine and a Traminer. It is presumed that the Riesling was born somewhere in the Rhein valley, since both Heunisch and Traminer have long been documented in the Rheinland’s history. 

But with parents from either side of the Adriatic, the cross could have happened anywhere on the way, probably via the expansion of the Roman Empire. I'm sure the Romans in the Rhein and Mosel valleys drank Riesling before Jesus, as Mount Edward's Duncan Forsyth,  our neighbour, claims on one of his T-shirts.

Although Germany continues to reign supreme in the Riesling world, the variety also grows in other countries. Australia and the United States come in second and third by volume produced. France, Austria and New Zealand grow a few thousand acres each as well. 

Today's spelling of Riesling was first documented in Hieronymus Brock's Latin Herbarium in 1552. In 1787 the Archbishop of Trier on the river Mosel ordered that all bad vines be replaced with Riesling cuttings, and by the 1850s, Riesling wine became so fashionable and sought-after that it commanded a higher price than Bordeaux Clarets and Champagne. 

hawkshead-blog-upper-rhein     riesling-australia    
** Upper Rhein, Germany and Guess where? 

Riesling travels well in time

Most white wines are enjoyed when they are young. Well made Rieslings can be enjoyed for decades, thanks to their high acidity level. Assuming that they have been stored in the right conditions. To hark quickly back to history, the high acidity is why there are strong beliefs that Riesling has been around much earlier than recorded, as it was safe to store and take on long journeys, like the Roman Empire building and the Crusades. 

Avid wine collectors might prefer aged reds, but Riesling makes another good addition to any well-curated wine cellar. Looking at the ageing potential of Riesling and exploring some sensual facts might be a surprise for some.  

Older Riesling wines can smell faintly of kerosene. For less experienced noses, that aroma can be off-putting, but the fact is that the scent of petrol signifies that this bottle is of higher quality than a Riesling with more pleasant aromas.
Factors that lead to the scent of kerosine in aged Riesling are the grapes' exposure to lots of sunshine and slight water stress, but these are only two attributes. The right clones, vine age, the aspect of the vineyard, and viticulture play a big part in contributing to the quality of a premium Riesling with great potential to age well. This trait is one of the most sought after among wine collectors and fans of Riesling.

Wine age also plays a major role in the change of the overall sensory profile as the prominent fruit aromas recede and yield to aromas of beeswax, pine forest, mushroom, woody spice and lemon sweets. A more cohesive textural component emerges, and the wine often comes across as drier. Also the colour changes into deeper richer shades of gold.

Younger Rieslings almost always display primary fruit characteristics like -
Apple & Pear, Peach & Apricot. Gooseberry, Citrus & tropical Fruits often play a supporting role. Secondary flavours could be Honeycomb or Ginger and sometimes reminiscent Flint or Mineral notes. Riesling is a grape happy to tell us its place of origin.

But the (Riesling) devil is in the (sweetness) detail.

Here are a few simple factual statements to start with

  • Most people expect Riesling to be sweet, but most vintages are actually Dry or Off-Dry.
  • Low alcohol (the practice of not completely fermenting wines) gives Riesling an intense flavour and also being a cool climate wine.
  • Any Riesling can be produced Dry by complete fermentation.
  • Rieslings are mostly fermented in stainless steel tanks, sometimes with a slight oak component and only in rare circumstances exclusively in oak barrels.

But the following statements need a closer look. 

  • The higher the alcohol, the drier the wine  
  • The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine
  • This is more like a rule of thumb and not always correct as we forget to take into account the level of acidity and pH in the wine.
And the same is true for the statement:
Dryness or sweetness is based on the amount of Residual Sugar left at the end of fermentation.
  • Less than 10g/l RS - the wine is considered Dry
  • More than 30g/l RS - the wine is considered Sweet
  • Anything in between is Off-Dry  or Medium Dry

If you are really interested and want more information go to International Riesling Foundation.  They distinguish in a more consumer-friendly way between: 

Again TA (tartaric acid) and the pH level are the decision-makers on the level of sweetness in the wine. 

Don't get me wrong, the rule of thumb is a good indicator, and most NZ Riesling wines have a pretty good indication about the level of sweetness on the back label of the bottle. 

While looking through the Wine Merchants retail shelves for Riesling, the label - Late Harvest -  might get your attention. Late harvest wines are made from grapes with high levels of accumulated sugar. They have been left on the vine for an extended amount of time. The longer a grape remains on the vine, the sweeter they become as each individual grape dehydrates and the sugar content becomes more concentrated. Late harvest grapes are typically picked 1-2 months after the regular harvest time.

A most delicious dessert wine is - Noble Riesling - usually sold in 375ml bottles. 
Noble rot, also known as 'Botrytis Cinerea', is a fungus that attacks healthy ripe grapes. It weakens the skins of the grape, which, in turn, accelerates the evaporation of the water, causing the fruit to shrivel and start to look more like a raisin. Sugars and acids become highly concentrated. The wine is made from botrytis infected raisiny grapes makes a very impressive naturally sweet wine with a unique flavour profile.  

And the last one to mention is - Ice Wine - made from Riesling grapes. 

 ** Ice wine harvest, Finger Lakes, USA
Ice wine is a dessert wine made from frozen grapes, theoretically any grape variety could be used. Again the Riesling’s high acidity preserves the freshness and so makes it the best suited gape variety for Ice Wine. The sugar and other dissolved solids do not freeze, but water does. The frozen grapes are pressed, resulting in a small amount of very concentrated sweet juice.
Ice wine grapes should not be affected by Botrytis (Noble rot). Only healthy grapes keep in good shape until the opportunity arises for an ice wine harvest, 2 to 3 months after the general harvest date.

As far as I'm aware, true Ice Wine from naturally frozen Riesling grapes is only made in Germany / Rhine Palatinate - Luxemburg - France / Alsace - Austria -  Canada / Niagara and the US / Northern Michigan.

Ice wine is very expensive and rare as it can be only made when the climatic conditions are right. Its main characteristic is its refreshing sweetness balanced by high acidity.

Growing up between Mosel and Rhein had a huge influence on me and shaped my palate. As a result, we at HAWKSHEAD aim for a dry style Riesling with integrated fruit intensity and vigour, always working with the excitement of a Vintage variation.

hawkshead-rieslingOur 2021 HAWKSHEAD Riesling is just on the verge of being Off-Dry, where sweetness and acidity are in harmony and remind us of fresh fruit. Check out our tasting notes for the 2021 Riesling, be tempted, taste it and see if you agree with us, and please let us know what you think.   

Riesling should be served between 7 - 9 degrees Celsius about 30 minutes after it has been taken out of the fridge. It should be cool, not chilled, at cellar rather than fridge temperature. Riesling is refreshing, crisp with a touch of sweetness and makes it a perfect wine to be enjoyed with food. 

There is a Riesling for every course in your meal.

  • A bone Dry flinty mineral Riesling for a seafood Entree. Ideal!
  • An Off-Dry Riesling with refreshing palate-cleansing acidity is ideal for a Main Course of lighter meats or fish, accompanied by rich, creamy sauces. Delicious!
  • Medium Sweet or even a Late Harvest Riesling is a perfect match for spicy, flavoursome Asian style dishes. Excellent!
  • A Noble Riesling paired with fruit-based sweet desserts and salty cheeses is a fabulous finish to every dining experience.

Red Riesling - rediscovered

When you say Red Riesling, most people think it's a new variety or a marketing ploy, but just like Pinot has red and white grape varieties, so too does Riesling. The name Red Riesling is misleading because it is actually a white wine. The red variety was grown back in the Middle Ages, and the Red Riesling is a grape colour mutation. It has also been suggested, but not proven, that the red-skinned version of Riesling is the forerunner of the common, "white" Riesling. Most likely, the genetic differences between white and red Riesling are minuscule, as is the case for the difference between Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Winemakers in Germany are only starting to experiment with Red Riesling grapes, but quite a few new vineyard plantings are going ahead. It is exciting to discover and explore old and obscure grape varieties. I am not so sure about the Red Riesling, as I have been told that the wine is very light. I look forward to taste it.

If you managed to read all this, you deserve more than one glass of Riesling and 'Thank You' 😊 and as always feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Zum Wohl - To Your Health


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1 comment

  • Very informative column! Cant wait to see how my Central Otago Rieslings will age 😊

    Gerald Leon

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