A Guide to Riesling Wine

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Riesling grapes on a vine

Are you interested in adding Riesling to your collection? This wine extends across many growing regions and delivers an intensely terroir-driven taste, with styles ranging from dry to syrupy sweet. Riesling is gaining in popularity worldwide, and now's a great time to discover it for yourself.

What Is Riesling?

Riesling is an aromatic, highly acidic grape variety with origins in the Rhine region of Germany. This grape variety does best in cooler climates but can tolerate warmer climates up to a point. Climates that are too hot cause the grapes to ripen before they have a chance to develop their flavors.

Riesling is a cold-tolerant variety that is also used for eiswein (aka "ice wine") production. The grapes, which are typically small, are compacted into tight bundles. It often buds late in the season, with ripening occurring fairly early. Cooler climates draw out the ripening to desirable levels and also let the grape retain its acidity.

DNA testing has shown Riesling to be the offspring of ancient grape Gouais Blanc – the same grape that happens to be a parent to varieties like Semillon, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir. As for the other parent of Riesling, researchers believe it to be a cross between Traminer and wild grape.

The History of Riesling Wine

Originating along the Rhine River, Riesling early on became a wine of the nobility. This designation came about partly because it showed such exceptional aging potential and partly for its ability to express complex flavors.

Written records show that Riesling white wine was in production around the Rhine during the early 1400s, with many noble households collecting it in their cellars. The highest quality of Riesling was known to store well for 50 to 100 years, with no decline in quality or taste.

From its origins along the Rhine, Riesling gained popularity and expanded to areas where it still grows today – Mosel Valley, Rheingau and Pfalz.

The Alsace region of France, also along the Rhine River, saw its own production from the later 1400s.

Austria experienced its own success with Riesling production, especially the Wachau, Kampstal and Kremstal regions. In terms of vineyard acreage, however, it has remained far behind that of Austrian favorite Gruner Veltliner.

By the late 1800s, Riesling had made its way to Australia and North America, where it began to take on new dimensions. Today, Riesling grows in the Clare Valley and Eden Valley of South Australia. In the United States, it grows in the Finger Lakes of New York, Michigan, Washington State and in a few cooler areas of California.

New Zealand produces Riesling in the Marlborough, Central Otago and Nelson regions. The wine was introduced to the country in the 1970s.

Tastes and Characteristics of Riesling

In most parts of the world, Riesling is considered a pure wine, since it does not undergo malolactic fermentation, does not receive added alcohol, and does not age in new oak.

However, there isn’t one single description of Riesling's taste because it’s a highly changeable wine. Riesling has a variable taste depending on the region and microclimate it was produced in. Some regions are known for drier Riesling, while others have run the gamut from dry to sweet.

In general, Riesling is rich in apricot, lemon, peach, apple, rose and pear notes, with hints of honey, spices and minerals. This is a wine with noticeable acidity, but the acidity is balanced and produces a refreshing crispness.


Rieslings from Pfalz tend to be dry with stronger minerality and rich yellow fruit. Mosel Rieslings, which range from dry to sweet, are slate-driven, with delicate fruits and intense florals. Those from Rheingau can be sweet but are most often dry, and they release a bold spicy fragrance, minerality and apricot-forward fruits.


Alsace Rieslings are mainly dry with a punch of citrus and pear and a floral perfume. They are also known for steel minerality and a full body.


Not as famous as German Rieslings, Austrian Rieslings are nevertheless of superior quality. Those from Wachau are very dry and highly aromatic, while Kampstal Rieslings are dry and complex. Riesling from Kremstal has a mildly sweeter and plumper taste.

North America

The Finger Lake Rieslings of New York State are light-bodied and range from dry to syrupy sweet. They’re often full of ripe tropical fruit, peach and apple notes. Over in Washington State, Rieslings are dry with crisp acidity and plenty of fresh florals and fruits. California is mostly too warm for Riesling, with a few exceptions along the northern and central coast; dry to sweet Riesling can be found in the Alexander Valley, Monterey and Santa Barbara.

Australia and New Zealand

Australian Rieslings are typically dry with bold florals and a strong lime-citrus flavor. They tend to be full-bodied and full of acidity. Those from New Zealand range from dry to sweet, with a good variety of citrus, tropical fruit and apple notes. Warmer regions produce Riesling with a drier style and lower acidity.

Riesling Food Pairings

Riesling wine is an outstanding companion to many types of foods, whether you’re serving shellfish or a spicy curry dish. This versatility is primarily thanks to the broad range of styles – dry to super sweet – and the excellent balance of sugar and acidity.

When pairing Riesling, it's useful to distinguish between its bone dry, off dry and sweet varieties.

Bone Dry Riesling

  • Grilled pork chops
  • Cream sauces
  • Baked fish
  • Basic seafood dishes
  • Chicken stew
  • Roasted root vegetables
  • Lemon chicken
  • Asian fusion

Off Dry Riesling

  • Roasted meats
  • Crab cakes
  • Seafood and mango dishes
  • California and sushi rolls
  • Spicy Asian dishes
  • Baked ham
  • Deviled eggs
  • Pumpkin ravioli
  • Soft cheeses
  • Mexican/Southwestern dishes

Sweet Riesling

  • Foie gras
  • Fruit desserts
  • Spicy Indian dishes
  • Thai dishes
  • Coconut curry dishes
  • Chinese dishes
  • Blue cheeses
  • Sweet and sour shrimp
  • BBQ chicken

At JJ Buckley Fine Wines, we sell Riesling from high-quality producers around the world. We invite you to search our extensive Riesling collection to find the perfect wine for your next event. For personalized assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.