Riesling Styles Defined

by Monica Bennion on November 16, 2011

If there is one wine that is often misunderstood, it is Riesling.  With the wide variety of Riesling styles, ranging from very dry to extremely sweet, it can be difficult to decipher which one will suit your taste.  In this article, we will discuss the different styles of Riesling, specifically the German styles, and what key words to look for when choosing a Riesling.

Riesling originated in the Rhein and Mosel river valleys of Germany and France sometime during the 15th century, and gained massive popularity during the 17th century, beginning at the end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 when Alsace was ceded to France.  The vineyards devastated by the war were replanted, mostly with Riesling, thus creating a boom to the Riesling varietal.  In centuries since, Riesling has seen its fair share of honor and nobility as well as dislike and aversion.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, quantity over quality, along with poor craftmanship, marred the Riesling variety when unbalanced and overly sweet Riesling was produced.  In 2001 however, Riesling made a comeback when the United States became the second largest importer of German Riesling.

Today, Riesling is produced around the world and in many different styles.  The desire for quality has made Riesling the wine world’s “new” sweetheart, enjoying a double-digit market growth and culinary affections worldwide.  As Riesling makes its way back into the spotlight, it is helpful to know a little of the lingo when faced with choosing a Riesling.  Here are some brief definitions and classifications sure to help you pick a Riesling you will love.

Trocken – “Dry” – For a German Riesling to be classified in the “trocken” style, there can be a maximum amount 0.4% residual sugar  for wines with lower acidity and up to 0.9% residual sugar for wines with higher acidity.

Halbtrocken – “Half-Dry” – To be classified in the “halbtrocken” style, there can be a maximum amount of 1.2% residual sugar for wines with lower acidity and up to 1.8% residual sugar for wines with higher acidity.

Feinherb – “Off-Dry” – This style is slightly sweeter than halbtrocken, with an unregulated designation.

Lieblich – “Semi-Sweet” – Not typically indicated on the wine label.

Kabinett – Essentially the first level of reserve grape selection, which have achieved minimum defined potential alcohol levels.  Kabinett style Riesling is lower in alcohol (8%-10%) and are made in the drier style.  This style of Riesling is a fantastic option for pairing with a wide variety of foods.  Our 2009 Jana Mendocino Old Vine Riesling is made the German Halbtrocken Kabinett style.

Spätlese – Translated as “late picking” and refers to Riesling grapes picked late during the harvest season.  This style is usually medium in body and can be made either in the dry or sweet style.  This Riesling style holds up well with foods with a bit of spice.

Auslese – Translated as “out picked” or select harvest, and refers to ripe grapes picked out from a specific cluster of berries.  This style can be crafted into either a dry or sweet style, and is the first Riesling range that may exhibit true dessert wine status.

Beerenauslese – Translated as “selected harvest of berries” and refers to grapes that have been affected by Botrytis, or noble rot, and hand selected.  This style is a luxurious dessert wine and pairs nicely with a myriad of desserts, more specifically peach-based desserts and caramel delights.

Trockenbeerenauslese – Translated as “dry berry select picking” and refers to a late harvest, Botrytis (noble rot) picking, where the berries have started to shrivel on the vine, thus concentrating the sugars and creating ultra concentrated, nectar like dessert wines.

Eiswein – Translated as “ice wine” and refers to grapes that have been frozen on the vine.  Unlike trockenbeerenauslese styles, the grapes for Eiswein should not be affected by Botrytis.  Eiswein is created from pressing frozen grapes, and produces a low-yield, high flavor, rich dessert wine.  Our 2010 Angel Eis is produced in this style (although the grapes do not freeze on the vines, but rather are frozen immediately after harvest).

Even though Riesling can be crafted in a variety of styles, the flavors are often similar.  Riesling exhibits aromas of apple, pear and peach, with delicate floral undertones, and often times notes of honey and spice.  The native soils Riesling grows is can also impart a certain mineral quality, which can explain why some Rieslings have hints of slate or limestone.

With the variety of Riesling styles made, this may be the one wine that is most versatile when pairing with foods.  Riesling’s flavors, residual sugar and acidity can accommodate even the most challenging flavors and spice profiles.  From appetizers to desserts, rich meats to spicy fare, Riesling is the “go to” wine.

We do not usually think of white wines as having a good aging potential; Riesling however is one of a few white wines that has the aging potential of many red varieties.  With their naturally high acidity, well made Riesling develops more complexity and structure the longer they are aged.  The most common aging periods for Riesling wines would be 5-15 years for dry, 10-20 years for semi-sweet and 10-30+ years for sweet styles.  However, there are some Riesling wines that have been highly rated and enjoyable with more than 100 years of aging.

No matter your style choice when enjoying a Riesling, if you’re looking for a crisp, refreshing and versatile wine, Riesling is the perfect choice.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rollin Klink November 18, 2011 at 8:31 am

Great article. As usual, your article was very useful. I printed it for my library. I love your wines, your web page, and your attitude. Great job!


Jana Harvey November 18, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you’re finding our information useful. I’m learning a lot, too!


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