With its long aging potential, complex flavors, and high market value, Riesling is a must-have wine for any collection. However, in my experience, this is one of the toughest wines to get right. For starters, it’s almost impossible to tell how this varietal will taste based on data points like residual sugar and acid levels. Even when you find a bottle that matches your palate perfectly, you can’t guarantee that those same flavors will be there in 10 years. I’ve known collectors who have invested in what they thought were sweet, supple young Riesling vintages, only to discover after years of cellaring that the wines had taken on a bone dry, heavy quality. To find a truly great Riesling that will stand the test of time, you’ll need to consider a few things.
The Important Parts of the Label
Germany, which grows most of the world’s Riesling, is famous for its strict grape classification systems and highly detailed labels. German labels include information about alcohol content, which classification the wine falls under, the region in which it was grown, and the specific guidelines the wine had to follow. However, collectors have discovered that data can’t always predict how Riesling will taste. For instance, most wines with more than two grams of sugar per liter tend to taste sweet, yet Riesling with high residual sugar can easily taste dry, especially if it is an old vintage or relatively high in acid.
Personally, I don’t rely on residual sugar data to tell me how Riesling will taste. Instead, it’s safer to look for the phrases on the label that describe the winemaker’s overall assessment of the wine. Here are the common labels you’ll encounter, listed from driest to sweetest:
- Trocken (German for “dry”)
- Feinherb (off-dry)
- Lieblich (semi-sweet)
- Spaetlese (Spaetlese alone is supremely sweet, but if it’s accompanied by the word Trocken, it will be slightly less sweet)
- Auslese (Trocken Auslese is sweet, but Auslese alone is far sweeter)
- Beerenauslese (dessert wine)
- Eiswein (dessert wine)
- Trockenbeerenauslese (dessert wine)
It’s important to note that although Trockenbeerenauslese has the word “Trocken” in it , the full German phrase translates loosely as “dry berries picked.” In other words, the winemakers made the wine from super sweet grapes that had practically raisined on the vine.
Alcohol Content Is Key
Alcohol by volume can tell you more about the basic classifications above. Generally, the higher the alcohol content is, the drier the wine will be. First, research the weather for a particular vintage. If it was hotter than usual, and you want a dry Riesling, you should expect the alcohol content to be well above 13 percent. That’s because the grapes will be higher in sugar due to the hot weather, and more of that sugar will get fermented down into alcohol. Similarly, high-quality grapes generally have a higher alcohol by volume. Sought-after, collectible producers like Weingut Hermann Donnhoff tend to grow fully-ripe grapes, meaning the sugar content is naturally higher, and so is the alcohol content, on average. The labels might stay the same across vintages for Riesling, but the alcohol content will vary depending on which years had the highest quality grapes.
Rely on Your Nose
A great Riesling will have a touch of sweetness in its youth, even in its driest form–you’ll rarely, if ever, come across a truly bone dry young Riesling. Why is this the case? Experts suspect it has something to do with aromatics. Chemicals in most fruits, like grapes, trigger receptors in the nose and the back of the mouth, allowing us to “smell” sweetness. Studies have found that products that are highly concentrated in their aromatics tend to taste sweeter, even if the sugar content is low.
Since Riesling is aromatic and fruity in its youth, we get the impression of sweetness, even when little actually exists in the liquid. This becomes a problem as the wine ages. A wine loses its aromatics over time, which is how a fruity young Riesling will suddenly become bone dry in its old age. The truth is, it was always that way, we were just being tricked by our sense of smell. Before investing in Riesling bottles for long-term cellaring, be aware that your nose will tell you that the wine is sweeter than it actually is, so skew slightly sweeter than you normally prefer. As the wine ages, it will taste drier.
Work Your Way Back from Older Vintages
Many years ago, I was invited to sample a flight of Riesling that had spent at least 10 years in a cellar; it was a life-changing experience. Most of the Riesling I’d had up until that point was, at most, a few years old, and I knew this wine primarily for its fruity flavors. I’d already had glasses of Weingut Fritz Haag Feinherb in the past, so I thought I knew what to expect from this semi-dry, fruit-heavy wine. I couldn’t have been more wrong–the older version of this wine had lost much of its original, bright fruitiness, becoming something far richer, and quite dry.
Ever since that tasting, I’ve relied on trying older versions of any Riesling I plan on cellaring long-term. When you taste these wines at their peak and compare them to younger vintages from the same producer, you can see how the wine tends to age. Taste old and young vintages side-by-side, and take note of which flavors disappear over time. Find the flavors that remain; these lingering flavors are the ones you should look for in other wines from that producer.
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