IN GERMANY — WHERE THE FIRST RECORDED REFERENCE to Riesling appears—winemaking dates back to the 1st century a.d. But Riesling doesn’t enter the picture until the 15th century when it is first documented as being grown in the Rheingau area and slightly later in the Mosel Valley. The earliest of these references dates from 1435, when the storage inventory of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Rüsselsheim (a small principality on the Rhine, close to today’s Rheingau) lists the purchase of “umb seczreben Riesslingen in die wingarten” (translation: six Riesling vines in the vineyard). The spelling Riesslingen is repeated in many other documents of the time.
Riesling’s most notable ascendance begins in the 17th century after the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648). Alsace was ceded to the French and devastated vineyards were replanted—mostly with Riesling—to replace inferior grape varieties. Powerful figures in the Church used their authority and influence to promote Riesling as well. The most important decree came from Clemens Wenzeslaus, Elector of Trier (in the Mosel Valley), on May 8th, 1787. Clemens ordered the removal of all inferior vines to be replanted with more “noble” grape varieties, which was a boon to the rise of Riesling vineyard plantings.
German Riesling achieved great success in the 19th century, fetching prices on par with the great French crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But this trend did not last long. War again devastated German vineyards in the first half of the 20th century. And when German vineyards were replanted, it wasn’t always with Riesling. Technological and scientific advancements led to experimentation in the vineyard and the development of earlier ripening new grape varieties like Müller-Thurgau. Vineyard yields increased astronomically and wine production entered a phase focused on quantity over quality.
Mercifully, the trend toward quality is again ruling the day. Since 1996, Riesling has regained its status as the most widely planted grape in Germany…and the varietal is swiftly gaining popularity today both in the Old and New Worlds.
ONCE AGAIN RIESLING is on the rise among wine lovers.
The variety’s recent success has much to do with our evolving tastes in food and wine and with our interest in food and wine pairing. Top American chefs and sommeliers have known for some time that Riesling is an extraordinary food companion, especially for “challenging” dishes; accordingly, they have given Riesling wines an increasingly prominent spot both on their wine lists and in wine pairing programs. Riesling is a versatile food wine because its crisp acidity cuts through the richness of meats and sauces, while its fruit sweetness pairs well with spicy cuisine and lighter, more flavorful food styles. The culinary movement toward fresh, local fare and the now ubiquitous fusion trend provide a perfect venue for Riesling to demonstrate its aikido-like ability to blend with whatever is thrown its way.
And relative to other great wines of the world, Riesling still represents an amazing value in terms of price for quality. This is a great time to be, or become, a lover of Riesling.
DESPITE RIESLING’S MANY WONDROUS ATTRIBUTES, it is sadly still a greatly misunderstood wine. Many New World wine lovers have the misconception that all Rieslings are sweet, while others simply state that they have an unequivocal aversion to Riesling. There are some explanations for these negative impressions.
Many memories linger from the 1970s and 1980s when U.S. consumers’ experience with German wines was dominated by mediocre, semisweet Liebfraumilch, represented by certain mass-produced and heavily advertised brands. These wines were widely distributed (U.S. volume in the mid-1980s hit 1.5 million cases… nearly unparalleled case totals for that era). The truth is that the wines contained little, if any, Riesling and were composed primarily of high yielding, less distinctive grapes like Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Apart from tarnishing the name of the noblest white grape of them all, the wines conditioned many to expect a very circumscribed experience from German wine and, by extension, Riesling—one of relative simplicity and sweetness, lacking balance and a true sense of place or terroir.
Ironically it can be argued that of all white grape varieties, it is Riesling which most purely expresses the qualities of balance and terroir. A tragic consequence of the great misconception that had grown up around Riesling—essentially, guilt by association—is that many true connoisseurs and lovers and admirers of terroir still are unaware of Riesling’s great potential to express terroir and to age magnificently.
It’s also important to remember that while, yes, there have been wretchedly sweet Rieslings, these wines are generally not wretched because they are sweet, but rather because their sweetness is not balanced by a correspondingly high degree of acidity. Since Riesling naturally possesses an extremely high level of acidity, especially those examples grown in the coolest climates, a skilled winemaker can allow for the most felicitous and harmonic sugar/acid balance.
1971 Scharzhofberger, Egon Müller
1976 Clos St. Hune, F.E. Trimbach
1976 Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg , Schloss Schonborn
tba Rheingau (owned by the same family since 1349!!!)
1990 Cuvée Frédéric Émile – F.E. Trimbach
1998 Riesling “Unendlich,” F.X. Pichler
Austria, Niederôsterrich, Wachau
2000 Clos Saint-Urbain Zind Humbrecht
Alsace, Rangen de Thann Grand Cru
Hock is the shortened form for the now obsolete word Hochheimer, after the German town of Hochheim that pioneered the use of the tall, slender bottle. The town’s name and its successful wines provided the inspiration for the name of the bottle shape. The term was certainly in use in Shakespeare’s day, as “hock” was a beverage loved o’erwell by Falstaff. In addition to the hock bottle, other bottle shapes used for Riesling are featured above, namely the bocksbeutel, traditional in Franken, and the claret, popular in the new world.
The Rieslings from Hochheim were some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At Christie’s in 1808, 12 bottles of “hock” sold for 10 British pounds, which was the highest price paid for any wine between 1766 and 1880 (114 years). In 1890 a case of Chateau Lafitte was selling for 40 shillings, while a case of Bernkasteler Doktor was selling for 63 shillings.
A map from 1348 of Kintzheim, a village in Alsace, contains the text “zu dem Russelinge” (translation: to the Russelinge)… but it’s not certain that this reference is to Riesling. In Austria, a small stream and a small vineyard are both called Ritzling, and they are claimed locally to have given Riesling its name. But there is no empirical evidence to suggest that either of these mentions is a link to Riesling’s word origin. Finally in 1477, Riesling was documented in Alsace under the spelling Rissling.
It seems that the first 100% Riesling vineyard was planted in 1716 at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau, thus the origin of the term, Johannisberg Riesling.