To learn about Riesling, we’ll start in Germany as the grape originated there and Germany continues to be the largest producer of Riesling. This wine comes in a distinctly shaped tall, skinny bottle and is commonly mistaken as a sweet wine only.
3 Ways to Decode Sweetness Levels
The truth is that Riesling is made in quite a range of sweet to dry. It can be a bit challenging to figure this out at a wine store or in a restaurant, but here are a few tricks to help crack the code.
1) German Riesling contains a German description that helps identify if the wine is dry or sweet.
Kabinett: Dry to off-dry (Dry means it is not sweet.)
Kabinett is harvested early season before the grapes are truly ripe and while the residual sugars are still low. You may also see “Trocken” on the label which means dry.
Spatlese: Semi-Sweet to Sweet
It is a bit sweeter as compared to the Kabinett. Spatlese is harvested after the Kabinett when the grapes have ripened.
Auselese is part of the late harvest and when the grapes hold even more residual sugar.
Beerenauslese: Very Sweet
Part of the late harvest which provides grapes with high residual sugar.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Super Sweet
You guessed it! Late harvest. High residual sugar.
2) Some of the Riesling wine labels have a sweetness meter that identifies how sweet or dry that particular bottle is. The best idea since sliced bread!
3) This last method considers the alcohol content on the label. The higher the alcohol content indicates the wine should be less sweet, as there is an inverse correlation between the amount of residual sugar to alcohol.
In other words, during the fermentation process yeast eats the residual sugar turning it into alcohol. The more sugar that’s “eaten” the higher the alcohol and the less sugar that’s “eaten” the lower the alcohol content.
Using ABV to determine sweetness levels:
ABV (Alcohol by Volume) 12%+ = Dry wine
ABV 11-12% = Off-Dry
ABV 10% = Semi-Sweet
ABV 8-9% = Sweet
Top Regions for Riesling
These 6 countries are the biggest producers of Riesling. To explore this wine further, set up your own tasting.
- Germany: Mosel, Saar, Ruhr
- France: Alsace
- Australia: Clare Valley, Eden Valley
- United States: New York (Finger Lakes), Washington, Oregon
- New Zealand
Riesling Tasting Recommendations
Exploring Riesling through tastings is a great way to familiarize your palate. And since there are a variety of sweetness levels within Riesling, it will help to experience and taste the differences between them. Keeping that in mind, I’ve put together 2 different ways to conduct this tasting. Tasting 1 recommends Riesling only from Germany with dry to sweet selections. Tasting 2 recommends dry Riesling from the top regions around the world.
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Tasting 1 – Dry to Sweet
For this first tasting, select 3 German Rieslings that showcase the Kabinett (dry), Spatlese (semi-sweet), and Auslese (sweet) varieties. Taste them from dry to sweet.
Pre-filtered links to Riesling on Wine.com.
FYI: Pay attention to the wine description because some will say 375ML half bottle. Just make sure you are selecting the size you want.
Tasting 2 – Top Regions
For the second tasting, select Riesling from the top 4 producing regions. Select a dry Riesling from all 4 regions to give you a better taste comparison.
Pre-filtered links to top Riesling regions on Wine.com.
- Germany: Mosel, Saar, Ruhr labeled Kabinett or Trocken
- France: Alsace
This region is known for making Riesling in the dry style. You can verify by looking for Alcohol by Volume of 12% abv or more.
- Australia: Clare Valley and Eden Valley
To identify dry styles, look for Alcohol by Volume of 12% abv or more.
- New York: Finger Lakes
Dry styles are identified as Dry on the label.
Riesling Tasting Notes
Whether you are actually doing the tasting or just opening a bottle, follow these 3 tasting steps. It will help you become familiar with the typical tasting profiles of Riesling or any wine. It’s one of the most important things you can do to lay that foundation of knowledge. But don’t worry about getting all of it just right. It’s really about taking in all of these senses to become more familiar.
Take your glass and tilt it over a white napkin or paper. Compare the color across all regions.
TASTING PROFILE: Range from light straw to a deep golden color. The deeper the color the longer the aging.
Let’s see how aromatic Riesling is. First, hold your glass at your chest and see if you can catch a scent. Next, move it to your chin and breath in through your nose. Then put your nose in the glass and take a big sniff. What scents do you catch? Swirl the wine and then sniff again. What scents do you catch now?
TASTING PROFILE: An aromatic grape that you should be able to smell with the glass at your chest. It gives off floral and citrus notes.
Take a taste and swirl it in your mouth. What flavors do you taste? After you swallow, how long does the flavor linger and how would you describe those flavors?
Oak: Most Riesling matures in stainless steel tanks. A small percentage may mature in oak barrels, but it’s an older neutral barrel that is meant to provide texture and roundness rather than adding any oak flavor to the wine.
Fruit: Light fruit flavors of apple, pear, peach.
Acidity: High level of acidity. (This is tartness in the wine and hits underneath the back of your tongue and throat. Think how lemons add tartness, acidity and a bit of pucker.)
Tannin: No tannin. (This is bitterness that comes from the grapes skins. Since grape skins are removed right away in the winemaking process, the bitterness doesn’t develop.)
Other: Growth in slate-heavy soils adds minerality to the wine (a slight chalky or flinty taste.)
Finish: (How long the flavors last after swallowing). Light and crisp with a finish around 30 seconds. Compared to other wine styles this is a short finish, and in line with the expectations of a nice Riesling.
Easy Rating System
After you taste each wine, give it a rating using this easy rating system. Add notes to help remember what you liked or didn’t like about the wine.
3pts Good, but not great
1pt Not for me
Explore More Riesling
Which regions did you like best? To continue exploring Riesling, try other selections from those regions and you’ll continue to build your knowledge and preferences.
When ordering Riesling in a restaurant, look for the top regions. You’ll know that any wine from those top regions will be great. In addition, I would verify sweetness levels with the wait staff because there is only so much information on the wine menu. This makes it a little more challenging to decipher.
Riesling Food & Cheese Pairings
This is really a unique type of wine. I always thought of Riesling as a sweet, sipping wine. How wrong I was. It’s truly a great food wine! It pairs really well with a variety of meats, vegetables and holds up to spicy foods too. We had it one Thanksgiving with our roasted turkey and it was fabulous.
Dry Rieslings (Kabinett):
Off-Dry / Semi-Sweet Rieslings (Spatlese):
- Spicy dishes (the sweetness in the wine, tones down the heat of the dish)
- Seafood (lobster, scallops, fish)
- Smoked meat
The Auslese pairs well with richer dishes. Keep the preparation in mind as it pairs well with savory and sweet (ie. duck breast and fruit sauce) or savory and spicy (ie. Indian or Thai).
- Foie Gras
- Spicy Indian food
- Thai curry
- Duck breast with fruit sauce
Super Sweet (Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese):
These are very sweet wines and are considered dessert wines. As you may have guessed, they go well with any sweet dessert. And they make a nice pairing with blue cheese.
- Goat Cheese