Riesling Wine Guide: The Harmonic Sounds of Riesling

Written by John P. Laloganes, Sommelier, Author & Educator, Founder of the Wine Professional (WP) Program

“Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.”—Confucius

Wine can provide a perceptual experience—an interpretation of some entity that yields intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind and spirit. Like wine, the concept of “beauty” surrounds us in so many ways, though all too often we are absorbed in the day-to-day mundane activities of life and somewhat disengaged from the world. So many of us become immune to the marvelous subtleties and pleasures that lay before us—in some ways, our senses have become fastened together. Finding a wine that defines beauty can delight the senses and please the mind in providing a resonant experience for its drinker—contributing to an enduring sensory manifestation that connects with one’s affective domain. The highly popular democratic approach that “all wine is good” grows tiresome when in fact; there is some ghastly wine being produced largely of mass produced origins. Fortunately, there is also some amazingly stunning wine if one is able to push aside some of their preconceived notions regarding the type of wine “style” of a given varietal.

In the context of wine, there is no other, which can offer a single sip with as much finesse, purity of fruit, intensity of flavor, and thrilling acidity as a Riesling. Yet this wine remains one of the most underrated and yet in many cases—misunderstood varietals. As a society, our perceptions of beauty and taste preferences obviously vary from person-to-person and diverge widely across cultures. For many, the idea of beauty is elusive when applied to wine—instead the decision is based off more trivial interpretations such as colorful labels or brand names. Beauty is such a contentious theme—to suggest my proclivity in being able to define beauty in a wine will offer nothing more than insight.

what does riesling taste like

Expressionism of Riesling

Originating in the Rheingau region of Germany, Riesling is recognized as one of the most diverse white wines in the world—capable of achieving profound beauty. Riesling’s ever present sweetness, ripeness and acidity coupled with her clean, purity of aromas and flavors make for an exciting and versatile white wine. Her personality resonates with the springtime—the sense of exuberance coupled with anticipation and promise—elements that forge new beginnings.

While it is likely to assert that most Rieslings contain some typical and recognizable aroma nuances, their structural elements are quite varied from location-to-location. Winemakers apply a sense of improvisational production based on the particular season and what the locale allows. Riesling is a varietal which is highly expressive of its location—therefore clearly influenced by the wine’s place of origin. Riesling prefers cooler areas with temperate climates to allow the grapes to slowly ripen. The origins of Alsace, Germany, Austria and Washington State have historically produced some of the most beautiful expressions of Riesling. German and Austrian vintners tend to be environmentally conscious with many of them practicing organic and biodynamic growing methods, which assure the wines maintain integrity and charm with an unadulterated essential expression of the grape.

Riesling prefers to be a “stand-alone” varietal as it simply expresses its purity without the need to be blended with other grapes. Seldom are these wines aged in new oak—instead a gentler approach of “neutral” oak or stainless steel is applied for the wine to ferment, integrate and stabilize. Riesling is also acknowledged for producing some of the world’s most celebrated dessert wines which can be crafted in a combination of methods.

aromas and flavors of riesling wine

The Smell of Spring in Riesling

Similar to the springtime air, Riesling expresses nuances of concentrated and highly aromatic stone fruit (peach and apricot), tropical fruit (pineapple), dried fruits (golden raisin), flowers, and honey. Unique to this varietal is an often ever present element of minerality (wet stone). An assertive petrol or “goût de pétrole” aroma becomes apparent and integral as a Riesling reaches maturity—often described as an association of kerosene or rubber.

The Taste of Spring in Riesling

Any attempt to apply a definitive “style” to Riesling is going to be fraught with difficulty. How does one encapsulate in just a few words a wine which encompasses such infinite varieties of style and expression? Her form can range from dry to sweet and light to full body—largely depending on the level of residual sugar remaining in the wine after completion of the fermentation process. Determining whether a particular Riesling is dry—off-dry—or sweet is largely identified by the wine’s alcohol content. Lower alcohol versions (roughly 12 percent or lower) maintain higher levels of residual sugar, providing a more opulent medium-to-full body. In contrast, higher alcohol versions (roughly 12 percent or higher) typically maintain minimal to no perceptible sugar, yielding a dry wine with a leaner light-to-medium body.

Regardless of a Riesling’s form, quality versions will forever uphold a presence of sugar ripeness and ample acidity to provide a more balanced expression of the grapes personality. The synchronicity of these dual agents is used to describe the seemingly contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent. The natural duality of sugar and acid exist to provide a complimentary counterbalance against one another. They are bound together as parts of a mutual whole, forming a single reality—necessary for any Riesling with an archetype of integrity. The components of sugar and acid are essential to harmony and the wine’s emotional core.

riesling wine characteristics

The Sound of Spring in Riesling

Another form or expression of beauty is in music—more specifically in exploring the parallels of music and wine. According to the famous Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, “Melodic invention is one of the surest signs of a divine gift.” The passion in Mahler’s music is dramatic, creative and evocative—his sounds and others can assist to bridge the musical world to one’s love of wine.

The classic “Simple Gifts” has become one of America’s most popular religious folk songs. It was written and composed by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. (1797-1882) while he was at the Shaker community in Maine. The song has now been conducted by musicians Nora Barton and Billie Howard for the sole purpose of enlightening the wine enthusiast by accentuating the sound of a Riesling’s acidity as represented by the violin and the sound of sugar and ripeness as it is represented by cello.

Acid is integral as it is demonstrated by brightness and liveliness of the violin. The tone of the violin often stands out above other instruments providing something vivid and energetic.

Sugar and ripeness is integral in a well-made Riesling as represented by the denseness and strength of the cello. The cello is very distinct, expressing a resonant sound with much depth and richness. Its deep tenor voice produces a more luscious sound that creates a persistent evocative melancholy mood.

When the violin and cello play together, there is an immediate energy, an emotional melodic sound that resonates as they rhythmically banter and simultaneously weave in and out of musical notes. There is a tension between the two sounds—the energy pulls each one forward that progress down a path of emotion. There is a reliance on each instrument—an interdependence necessary to elicit greater complexity and beauty. As the music develops, the story unfolds into a dynamic and harmonious melody. Similar to Riesling, two of her primary components are bound together as parts of a mutual whole. The components of sugar and acid are essential to the melodies as their individual dynamic succession of musical tones are perceived as a single entity. Simply, they provide a more interesting and thrilling experience. Together they provide a counterpoint of the more obscure elements of acidity and the more obvious elements of ripeness and sugar. They interact and form a perception of the wine in its entirety rather than its deconstructed constituents. Coupled with Riesling’s aromatic intensity, harmony is achieved—providing the essence of a beautiful wine.

To recognize beauty in a glass, find any of the recommended wines below to experience how they can transform an ordinary drinking scenario into a much more memorable one. The small selection below is identified in a progression of dry-to-super sweet versions.

  • Salomon Undhof, Riesling Kogl, Kremstal, Austria 2015
  • Domaine Weinbach Riesling “Grand Cru Schlossberg” Alsace, France 2016
  • Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling “Eroica” Columbia Valley, Washington 2016
  • Max Ferdinand Richter, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Riesling “Kabinett” Mosel, Germany 2017
  • Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling “Spatlese” Mosel, Germany 2017
  • Inniskillin Riesling “Icewine” Niagara Peninsula, Canada 2017
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