Riesling: A Comprehensive Guide

riesling wine guide - mosel

Pronunciation: REE-sling

If you’ve tried one Riesling, I guarantee you haven’t tried them all!

Riesling makes high acid, aromatic white wines with notes of citrus, stone, and petrol. Riesling makes dry to sweet dessert wines and sparkling sekt. Riesling pairs well with fusion cuisine that marries spice and flavor.

Here’s what you need to know about Riesling wine.

What Does Riesling Taste Like?


Riesling’s profile will reflect the region where the grapes were grown. Cool climate and warm climate Rieslings are different.

  • Cool Climate Riesling: Rieslings from cooler growing regions express green apple, lemon, lime, and floral notes.
  • Warm Climate Riesling: Wines from moderate regions give us rich stone fruits – peach, nectarine, and yellow apple. The warmest vineyards will produce wines with honey, pineapple, and mango.

Why Does My Riesling Smell Like Gasoline?

riesling wine guide - gas pump

The gasoline aroma in Rielsling is natural. It’s found in higher quality wines and aged Riesling, becoming more apparent over time.

Riper grapes, high sun exposure, and water stress – all concentrate the aroma.

No. You’re not crazy. Petrol, tennis balls, sneaker – all reference a unique chemical compound in the Riesling grape variety called TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene).

Did You Know? The gasoline smell is a dead giveaway for Riesling during blind tastings.

Is Riesling Sweet?

Not all Rieslings are sweet, but sweeter Rieslings are traditional. Historically, Riesling growers had a difficult time achieving full ripeness with their grapes, so producers balanced their underripe wines by adding a little sugar.

Winemakers achieved this goal in one of two ways:

  1. Süssreserve (seuss – reserve): Literally ‘sweet reserve’ in German. Winemakers save some of the unfermented grape juice and add it back to the wine right before bottling. Typically, the grape juice needs to come from the same growing region as the wine grapes. This adds sweetness and body and increases the total volume of wine available for sale. A drawback is that it lowers alcohol and can throw a wine out of balance. The winemaker will need to work carefully to craft a well-balanced wine using this approach.
  2. Halting Fermentation: Winemakers can lower the temperature of the fermenting wine while there’s still residual sugar. They filter the wine removing any yeast and adding sulfites to keep the wine from re-fermenting. This method is believed to be superior as it maintains the wine’s aroma and flavor concentration and doesn’t lower the overall alcohol level.

Helpful Riesling Wine Buying Tip: Careful – Sweetness isn’t always clearly marked on wine labels.

How to Know If Riesling Is Sweet?

riesling wine guide - riesling sweetness indicator
Riesling taste indicator: ALWAYS look for these little scales on the back labels of Riesling before you buy.

If you want to know if your Riesling is dry or sweet, look for label clues. More Riesling producers are moving to put sweetness indicators on their bottles to help you understand the wine’s style.

The International Riesling Foundation (IRF) created this useful taste profile scale. This is relatively new.

Imagine thinking you’re going to be sipping a dry wine only to have something sweet in your glass. It’s hard to win converts this way.

If you find that you enjoy a dry Riesling and go to the store to pick up another bottle, it could very well be made into an off-dry or medium-sweet style. So always remember to check the labels.

Another clue is the alcohol level.

Lower levels of alcohol (under 11% abv) usually mean an off-dry style of Riesling. (Here are more tips to figure out if your wine is sweet)

Where’s Riesling Wine Originally From?

Riesling wines were first documented in the Worms region of Germany (use the map above to scroll in/out).

Our story begins 500 years ago, on a chance occasion when a gentleman in modern day Worms, Germany, reached out and made a short note in his ledger about a few new cuttings for his vineyard. What did his invoice say? ‘Riesslingen’ – a probable nod to the white grape Riesling.

From Worms, additional references to the grape crop up in the Rhine and Mosel from the middle 16th century onwards.

Further south, agricultural records show the grape was under cultivation in Alsace, France by 1628.

Riesling grew in popularity and by the 1700s ecclesiastical authorities actively encouraged plantings of the vine throughout the Rheingau and Mosel.

Throughout this period, unreliable ripening and the propensity to pick early did no favors for final wine quality, but when it was made well, it rivaled the greatest wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

riesling wine guide
Ebbitt House Wine Menu, 1866. Notice ‘hock’ – Riesling – sells for more than top-growth Bordeaux, under ‘Claret’.

In recognition that quality wine production depended on a better understanding of viticulture, the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute was founded in the 1870s to advance viticultural research.

Today, the Geisenheim Institute is the equivalent of UC Davis in terms of its importance and impact to research on rootstocks, clones, viticulture, and winemaking within Germany.

Where Is Riesling Wine Made Today?

Germany’s still the world’s largest producer of Riesling, but by no means does it have a monopoly on quality wine production.

The grape’s found a comfortable home for itself nestled in vineyard pockets across the globe.

Riesling in Austria

Right next door to Germany, Wachau, Austria crafts some of the country’s best examples of Riesling grown along the Donau, or Danube, river.

Riesling in Australia

Johann Gramp

South Australia’s Eden and Clare Valleys are both proven growing regions for the grape. In 1840, a young immigrant, Johann Gramp, sent word back to Germany to ship Riesling cuttings for his new vineyards in Clare Valley along Jacob’s Creek.

The vines thrived. By the 1950s, Colin Gramp, a great-grandson of Johann Gramp, had revolutionized temperature-controlled fermentation to produce clean, linear wines that led to a cascade of international awards and recognition for the varietal.

Fun Wine Fact: Riesling remained Australia’s most important white wine grape until Chardonnay’s rise in the 1980s.

Riesling in the Washington State

The US has the world’s second largest acreage of Riesling under vine outside of Germany, mainly in Washington state where it’s the #1 white grape (a delicious claim to fame, IMHO).

Producers make all styles – from dry to dessert. What about California? While Riesling vineyards are tucked across the state, they’ve found particular success in Mendocino County’s cooler climes.

Riesling in Finger Lakes, New York

Perhaps most notable is the Riesling’s rise in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where vineyards planted along the lakes’ banks enjoy the moderating effects of warm air currents and can survive an otherwise brutal climate.

Riesling in Canada

Of course, we can’t neglect Canada, where Riesling makes excellent wine in the Okanagan Valley and along the Ontario Peninsula, including delectable ice wines.

What’s Riesling Like in the Vineyard?

mosel region - vineyard - riesling wine guide

Riesling’s an early ripener, a useful attribute in extreme latitudes. It’s also cold hardy thanks to a thick, woody layer, adding additional protection. This vine really shines with a slower growing season. Warmer vineyard sites ripen the grape too early, leading to muted aromas.

How’s Riesling Wine Made?

Riesling wines, known for their captivating aromatic qualities, undergo a protective winemaking process to preserve their essence.

Producers typically avoid the use of oak, opting instead for inert vessels like stainless steel, concrete, clay, or large old oak foudres, to ensure that no additional aromas or flavors are imparted to the wine.

Careful control of fermentation temperatures safeguards the grape’s delicate aromatics and allows the winemaker to stop fermentation early if a sweet or off-dry style’s desired.

Jargon Alert: Inert means that the container doesn’t impart any aromas or flavors to the wine. Stainless steel, concrete, and clay fall into the ‘inter’ category. Very large, old oak foudres count, too.

Helpful Tip: Go check out this post on how wine fermentation works.

Riesling vs Chardonnay vs Moscato

HuePale yellow to goldPale to medium goldPale to deep gold
AromasFloral, citrus, stone fruitMusky, orange blossom, tropical fruitApple, pear, vanilla
SweetnessRange from dry to very sweetMostly sweetRange from dry to off-dry
AcidHighModerate to highModerate to low
Alcohol (%)8-13%5-11%12-15%
BodyLight to mediumLightMedium to full
IntensityModerate to pronouncedModerateModerate to pronounced
Key Growing RegionsGermany, Alsace, AustriaItaly, California, AustraliaFrance, USA, Australia
Classic PairingsSpicy cuisine, Asian dishesDesserts, fruits, light cheesesPoultry, seafood, creamy dishes
Price Range$10-$40$10-$30$15-$50

Compared to Chardonnay, Riesling is lighter in body, more aromatic, and has higher acidity. Compared to Moscato, Riesling can be made dry or sweet – Moscato is almost always off-dry. Moscato will have orange notes, and riesling will have more lemon and stone fruits. Check out the chart above for a side-by-side-comparison.

Discover More:
Riesling vs Gruner Veltliner
Riesling vs Moscato
Riesling vs Viognier

Where Does Riesling Fall in Today’s Wine Market?


Great Rieslings can age for decades, some going back a century or more. Acid’s a natural preservative, something these wines have in abundance.

Despite the wine’s proven history, unoaked, highly aromatic, off-dry wines are not exactly popular these days.

Broad market appeal tends towards rich, full-bodied, buttery, oaked Chardonnays wrapped in warm stone fruits and baking spices. Tasted side-by-side, this style of Chardonnay tends to overpower Riesling.

Riesling is a great wine choice if you want a lower alcohol wine!

On the flip side, the healthy wine movement leans towards lower alcohol wines, making Riesling an attractive option for health-conscious drinkers watching alcohol intake.

The grape’s cooler growing conditions translate into naturally lower sugar accumulation, and therefore lower alcohol levels in the final wine.

The next time you’re in a wine shop, take a look at the ABV% on different bottles of Riesling. Most will fall well under 13% ABV.

Notable Riesling Producers and Bottles to Try

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Discover the world of Riesling through renowned winemakers who truly understand this captivating white wine. Check out these esteemed producers (Dr. Loosen is an icon – the video is a vineyard tour with him – watch it!):

1. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (Mosel, Germany) – This is a region, not a producer. Look for “Mosel-Saar-Ruwer” on the label. It offers exceptional Riesling wines with time-honored winemaking traditions.

2. Dr. Loosen (Mosel, Germany) – Known for a perfect balance of elegance and intensity in their Rieslings.

3. Joh. Jos. Prüm (Mosel, Germany) – A family-owned winery with centuries of legacy, producing pure and expressive Rieslings.

4. Felton Road (Central Otago, New Zealand) – Gains international acclaim for exquisite Rieslings that reflect the unique cool climate of the region.

Check out these exceptional producers or source local Rieslings if you can!

How to Serve Riesling Wine

how to serve riesling wine infographic - riesling wine guide

For the best Riesling wine experience, make sure to chill it to a temperature of 45°F to 50°F (7°C to 10°C) to keep those vibrant aromas and refreshing qualities intact.

You don’t really need to decant Riesling since it’s meant to be enjoyed young and fresh, but giving it a few minutes to breathe can bring out its flavors.

Opt for a glass with a slightly narrower bowl like tulip-shaped or long-stemmed white wine glasses to concentrate those delicate aromas and fully savor the Riesling’s bouquet.

What to Pair with Riesling Wine

Bowl-Thai-food - Riesling wine guide

Riesling’s high acid refreshes the palate, making it an exceptionally food-friendly wine.

Sauteed white fish, pasta with cream sauces, even spicey BBQ, and Tex-Mex can partner up with Riesling.

Off-dry styles complement spicey dishes, like Southeast Asian cuisine.

A personal favorite: Thai take-out and off-dry Kabinett.

Try any of these dishes with Riesling:

  • Thai
  • Sushi
  • Tacos
  • Enchiladas
  • Ceasar salad
  • White bean soup
  • Nachos

Helpful Tip: If you’re still getting started with wine, go check out this easy wine and food pairing guide.

4 Riesling Wine Flight Ideas

riesling-wine-guide-how to taste wine

Doing a side-by-side tasting of different Riesling wine styles is the best way to learn about this lovely white wine.

Here’s a four-wine Riesling flight to help you get a true sense of the grape’s stylistic dexterity, a regular Simone Biles of a wine:

  1. Kabinett, German off-dry Riesling: Look for any of these three words: ‘off-dry’, halbtroken, feinherb, or an ABV under 10%.
  2. A Dry Riesling from Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, or Rheingau, Germany: If the wine doesn’t have a style indicator, look for the words ‘dry’, troken, or ‘GG’ or Grosses Gewachs, on the label.
  3. A Dry Riesling from Eden or Clare Valley, Australia, and/or
  4. A Dry Riesling from Columbia Valley, Washington State
  5. Optional Dessert Category: Try a Canadian ice wine made from Riesling, or German Beerenauslese or Alsatian Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN).

Riesling Wine – Case Study

Chateau Ste Michelle 2018 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling - riesling wine guide

Producer: Chateau St. Michelle, Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley, 2018.

Chateau St. Michelle’s a mainstream producer.

You should be able to find this wine and other wines under their label without any problems.

  • Appearance: pale lemon
  • Nose: pronounced aroma intensity – white flower, lemon, golden apple, honey, honeysuckle, petrol, pineapple, peach, nectarine
  • Palate: dry, high acid, no tannin, medium alcohol, medium minus (-) body, pronounced flavor intensity, medium plus (+) finish
  • Primary Flavors: lemon, lime, green apple, golden apple, honey, honeysuckle, pineapple, peach, nectarine
  • Tertiary Flavors: petrol

Quality Assessment: This is a very good wine. The high acid balances with the intense, zesty aroma and flavor profile of fresh citrus fruits, stone fruits, and some tropical fruits. The range of fruits – from citrus to hints of tropical – makes me think that the grapes for this wine were sourced from different sites, where some grapes were marginally ripe and others almost too ripe. Or maybe a hillside, where the grapes in the middle of the slope received more direct sunlight than those at the bottom. All of these aroma clusters add to the complexity of the wine on the nose and palate. Regardless, this is a classic example of dry Riesling. The wine falls short of outstanding on the finish, which is dominated by citrus. If the wine had a longer finish that expressed more complexity, this could be an outstanding wine.

Aging Potential: This wine is suitable for aging. The wine’s high acid and intense fruit profile will continue to develop in the bottle. The wine is already starting to show tertiary notes of petrol that will evolve with further aging, and could include more pronounced honey notes, butterscotch, and citrus preserve.

Final Thoughts – The Enchanting Appeal of Riesling

mosel - riesling wine guide

Riesling, with its captivating aromas, lively acidity, and refreshing fruit flavors, stands as a wine that can be savored on diverse occasions and well-paired with a wide array of dishes.

Here are three key takeaways to keep in mind:

  • Exquisite Aromatics: Riesling delights with its enticing floral, fruity, and sometimes mineral aromas, making it an inviting choice for both seasoned enthusiasts and newcomers to the world of wine.
  • Food Versatility: Riesling’s vibrant acidity makes it a splendid partner for a variety of dishes, complementing seafood, salads, and vegetarian fare exceptionally well. Consider pairing it with dishes that feature lively acidity.
  • Global Expression: Riesling’s remarkable adaptability to different regions yields a fascinating spectrum of styles, each beautifully reflecting the distinct terroir of its origin.

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