The recorded history of Riesling begins in the Rhine and Mosel river valleys of Germany more than 500 years ago, but some believe this versatile grape has been used in winemaking for more than 2,000 years. Arguably the greatest white wine grape in the world (sorry, Chardonnay fans), with a nose that is among the most aromatic and pleasing of any grape, it can be made in many styles, from sweet nectar to bracingly dry.
It is sweetness that defines a Riesling, and the labeling laws of Germany provide a good indication of that sweetness, which is largely determined by how long the grapes are allowed to ripen before they’re picked. The first to be harvested are labeled Kabinett, and they are the driest of the designated wines (though the winemaker has some say in this as well). In ascending order of ripeness and usually sweeetness, there are Spätlese, Auslese and the rare Beerenauslese. Eiswein, while not actually part of this designation, remains on the vine the longest — until the grapes freeze.
Most Rieslings are designed to be drunk when they’re young, offering fresh tree fruit characteristics such as peaches, nectarines and apples. Older, matured wines develop richer flavors of apricot, honey and flowers. The late-harvest Rieslings, because of their extreme richness and high acidity, are capable of long aging; the results are often ethereal, producing wines of great purity and complexity.
Other regions specializing in this cool climate grape include New York’s Finger Lakes, Oregon, Washington, Canada, Alsace, Austria, New Zealand and Australia.