Newfound appreciation for the dry, crisp flavours of riesling have seen the grape’s popularity surge in recent years, but its historical importance is far deeper-seated than this recent flood of appreciation might suggest.
Known in some parts of the world – including its home of Germany – as ‘the king of grapes’, riesling produces white wines of unparalleled depth and presence. One of the only white grapes inclined to get better with age, riesling does this not just well, but exceptionally.
The taste profile of riesling is dependent on a number of factors, and the final product can be anything from particularly sweet to particularly dry. As a terroir-expressive wine, taste is largely determined by the area in which the grapes are grown. And with significant plantings in almost every wine-producing country in the world, the range of available riesling experiences is nothing short of stunning.
A feat of German engineering
The uniqueness of riesling can perhaps be put down to the fact that it is one of the rare grapes that didn’t get its start on French hillsides. It was rather the small German principality of Rüsselsheim (on the Rhine River near Frankfurt) that lays claim to the first riesling production, with documents mentioning the variety as early as 1435.
DNA fingerprinting has identified the parents of riesling as gouais blanc (a Croatian grape that is rare today, but was widely planted in the Middle Ages) and a cross between traminer and a wild variety. It is presumed that the grape originated in the Rhine, although in reality it could have originated anywhere between there and the coasts of the Adriatic Sea.
The Rhine Valley is still thought to produce the finest examples of riesling to this day, with its aged dry offerings held in particularly high esteem. The Alsace region of France is considered an almost equally iconic riesling region, however.
The original Australian white
Before the chardonnay boom of the 80s and 90s and the subsequent rise in popularity of sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, Australia’s white wine industry leant heavily on the shoulders of riesling. While William McArthur is credited with planting the first commercial vines near Penrith in 1838, the rush of German settlers to South Australia in the mid-1800s served to truly establish the variety as an Australian staple.
Mount Barker, the Clare Valley and the cooler Eden Valley proved happy hunting grounds for the resolute Germans, and these remain Australia’s most fruitful riesling regions to this day. The area Australia devotes to riesling is second only to Germany.
The rush of the lighter and less complex whites of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay has put Australian riesling in the shade in recent decades, but with palates developing around the nation the unique proposition that riesling brings to the table is once again gaining recognition.
“While William McArthur is credited with planting the first commercial vines near Penrith in 1838, the rush of German settlers to South Australia in the mid-1800s served to truly establish the variety as an Australian staple.”