Riesling Versatility: From Sparkling To Sticky  

  • By Jesse Becker MS
  • 03 Mar 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
Rhénanie-Palatinat - Credit : Émilie Althot-Robitaille

Over the last year of quarantine, a genuine bright spot for me has been the opportunity to taste with consumers again. Of course, I do this virtually and feel the fatigue of our new digital reality just like everyone else. Still, almost as soon as this quarantine began, wine lovers began reaching out, and I never hesitate to say yes. One of the beautiful things about our trade is that wine lovers keep drinking wine no matter the circumstances. As someone who's been on the import side for the last eight years, the chance to hear directly from the consumer is refreshing; it's something I miss from my restaurant days.  

A real revelation has been hearing the passionate enthusiasm that consumers have for Riesling. I say revelation because, as someone who sells Riesling for a living, I'm used to a certain amount of resistance. "I love it, but my customers don't understand it" is a common excuse. Hmmmm, I wonder what's going on here? It might be that I'm selling it hard to my virtual audience (it is my favorite grape variety, after all), but I sense the enthusiasm is real, especially when it's in the glass and on their palates. "We're having our favorite Thai food delivered tonight, and this Spätlese will be perfect!" Yes, it will, yes it will. 

Riesling does everything we expect of a top-class wine grape, from expressing terroir with exacting precision to its unmatched ability to develop with time in bottle. Perhaps its most impressive quality is the extraordinary stylistic range of which Riesling is capable. With each style, one will find wines so enrapturing that we can't imagine our oenophilic lives without them. Sparkling, dry, off-dry, and lusciously sweet, Riesling's expansive scope is an undeniable part of its intrigue. What follows is a summary of Riesling styles and a few thoughts on how to enjoy them. 

Sparkling  

I love looking at reports about global wine consumption, studying who is drinking what and how much. The first time I read that Germany was the world's biggest consumer of sparkling wine, I couldn't believe it. Do you mean to tell me that beer-loving Germany drinks more sparkling wine than France, Russia, the U.S.? With around 400,000 million bottles of bubbles consumed annually, no other country comes close. Much of this is blended, inexpensive Sekt produced by large German bottlers on an industrial scale. Riesling Sekt, on the other hand, is made in the traditional method from sparkling specialists and skilled Winzer(in), who produce aromatic weavings of acid, fruit, and autolysis. Drink often and always. 

Dry  

I have a friend who is closely tied to the Australian wine industry and intimately familiar with its wines. I once asked him to explain Clare Valley Riesling to me, a bone-dry and searingly acidic take on Riesling from a country known for producing sumptuously fruit-driven wine. German immigrants and slate soils explain Riesling's presence in Clare. The style results from their climate and huge diurnal shift (it also pairs perfectly with their famous Pacific Rim cuisine). Of course, dry Riesling is also the specialty of Germany, Austria, and Alsace, France, where they range from lean and sleek to broad and rich. It’s impossible to summarize here except for “Clare, it tastes like a salted, lime Margarita," as my friend says. 

Off-dry  

With the domestic market in Germany favouring dry wines, and with most German regions focusing on dry styles thanks in part to a warming climate, part of me hopes that Riesling's off-dry styles never disappear. The balancing sweetness of a Mosel or Nahe off-dry Riesling perfectly tames Sichuan peppers' numbing effect and cools our palate after a bite of spicy curry. Most of us have probably enjoyed an elegant lunch with a bottle of 7% alcohol Saar Riesling, leaving the restaurant energized instead of needing a nap. We need these wines in our wine-drinking repertoire, as they are so essential to living life well. 

Sweet 

I usually hear the term "meditation wine" in Italy, where it's known as vino da meditazione and reserved for wines so exquisitely made, unique, and rare that they really ought to be consumed on their own, without food, and maybe without anyone else! For me, a Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese is the ultimate meditation wine, a wine made with such meticulous attention and extreme selection that you can hardly believe the winemaker has the patience to produce it. Each berry is selected by hand and chosen for the right amount of Botrytis, the right amount of shrivelling, the perfect balance of acid and sugar.   

Riesling, your versatility never ceases to amaze me.

Rhénanie-Palatinat - Credit : Émilie Althot-Robitaille