This white wine has a very strong connection to 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. 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.
3 Ways to Decode Sweetness Levels
1) Some 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 is a matter of looking at 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
There are 6 countries that are the biggest producers of Riesling. We will focus on the top 4 regions.
- United States (Finger Lakes, New York*/ Washington / California)
- New Zealand
Exploring Riesling can be done a couple of ways. Since there are a variety of sweetness levels within Riesling, it would help to experience and taste what this means for your palate.
Tasting 1 – Dry to Sweet
The first tasting recommendations below are 3 German Rieslings that showcase the Kabinett (dry), Spatlese (semi-sweet), and Auslese (sweet) varieties. Taste them from dry to sweet.
Dr Loosen Blue Slate Kabinett
Varietal: Riesling – Kabinett
Rating: 90 Wine Enthusiast
Avg Price: $19
S Sohne Piesporter Michelsburg Spatlese
Varietal: Riesling – Spatelese
Avg Price: $13
S Sohne Riesling Auslese Blue
Varietal: Riesling – Auslese
Avg Price: $16
Tasting 2 – Top Regions
The second tasting recommendation includes Riesling from the top 4 producing regions.
I would compare a German Kabinett against the other regions since they tend to produce Riesling that is dry. This will give you a better way to taste and compare across all of them.
Yalumba 2017 The Y Series Riesling (Barossa)
Appellation: Barossa (South Australia)
Rating: 89pts Wine Enthusiast
Avg Price: $15
United States: New York, Finger Lakes
Ravines Dry Riesling
Appellation: Finger Lakes, New York
Rating: 90pts Wine Spectator
Avg Price: $15
F E Trimbach Riesling
Rating: 93pts Wine Enthusiast
Avg Price: $23
Now that you have your Riesling line up, it’s time to taste! Just follow the three steps below to become familiar with Riesling from each region.
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. Hold your glass at your chest and see if you can catch a scent. Then 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: Riesling is seldom aged in oak. Most Riesling ages in stainless steel. If it does see oak, 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.
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 you want to order a Riesling in a restaurant, look for the brand/winery you prefer or the region. In addition, I would cross-check with the wait staff to understand how sweet or dry the Riesling is before ordering, as there is only so much information on the wine menu which makes it a little more challenging to decipher.
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
Riesling is quite an interesting type of wine. I always thought of Riesling as a sweet, sipping wine. How wrong I was. Yes, any of the varieties of Riesling can be easy to sip without any food, but it is a great food wine! We had it one Thanksgiving with our roasted turkey and it was fabulous.
Keep in mind the more acidic the wine, the better it goes with spicy food too.
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
Goes well with richer dishes. Also, think of the preparation, an Auslese goes 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. They also pair nicely with blue cheese.
- Goat Cheese
Congrats! You’ve decoded Riesling. Share your accomplishment with your friends!