from the CellarSunday School: Riesling 101

This week, we get take a good look at riesling. Think it’s always sweet and goopy? Think again…

Riesling is, without a doubt, one of the wines most misunderstood by the American consumer. Perhaps it’s because so many of us were first introduced to riesling (and often wine in general) with bottom-shelf, “grocery store” riesling that seemed (at the time) like a good deal. Such is the life of a college student…Perhaps it is because, for so many years, nay, decades, the bulk of rieslings on the American market approached (or passed) saccharine-sweetness. 

Perhaps it is because so much of the riesling available to most American consumers is mass-produced, with a focus not on quality but on quantity. Perhaps it’s because of those confounded German labels. German culture has a tendency to precision–but to the uninitiated, the precision of a German wine label can be a maelstrom of confusion. This article is intended to dispel some of the myths that have collected around riesling, shed some light on those wunderschön labels, and introduce some of the key growing areas.

If the first words that come to your mind when you hear the word “riesling” is “sweet,” you are not alone. If the next word that comes to mind is “cheap,” you would still have considerable company. Both of these assumptions, however, are far from the truth. In sugar-content, riesling can range anywhere from bone-dry (NO perceptible sugar remaining after fermentation) to intensely sweet. Most are somewhere in the middle–off-dry to slightly sweet. 

The truth is that the defining characteristic of riesling is not its sweetness, but its high acidity. That freight-train of acidity is the very reason that riesling has traditionally tended to the sweeter end of the spectrum–the residual sugar helps to balance the acidity, just as sugar helps to balance the acidity of lemonade. Acidity is also what makes quality riesling one of the most ageable wines in the world. Speaking of ageability, riesling can be quite expensive. A web-search for Egon-Müller’s Schwarzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslesen yielded an “en primeur” (essentially, before release) price of ₤11,374 (that’s a little over $16,000) a bottle–and scores of 98 of 100 points from Vinous and 19 of 20 points from the esteemed wine critic, Jancis Robinson. This ain’t no grocery store plonk!

Decoding a German Wine Label

Now I know the name of that Egon-Müller wine may have you scratching your head. Not to worry. We are about to decode a German wine label. Such an exercise is so necessary to understanding German wines that it is included in almost every general wine text–and a web-search for “German wine label” images will yield pages of results with not only a label, but a legend to explain the label…This can be a rather complicated affair–and, just to keep it interesting, there are two systems of labelling: one “traditional” and one “modern.” The information that you are likely to find on the label is as follows:

  • Name of the producer
  • Vintage year
  • Name of village and vineyard (if applicable)–hint: In these cases, the village will be listed first and will include the possessive suffix -er. The name of the vineyard will follow. You may see, for example, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, indicating the Sonnenuhr vineyard in the village of Zelting. This information applies only wines grown in very specific sites and will not appear on wines from larger areas or from multiple areas.
  • Grape–Germany is one of the few European countries to regularly indicate the grape on wine labeling (although such practice is becoming more common throughout Europe).

Traditional Labels

On labels using the traditional system of classification, you will also find the following information.

Quality Level

The following levels may appear as an indication of geographic origin/quality on traditionally labeled German wines:

  • Wein–At the most basic level, wines labeled as “wein” (meaning, you guessed it, “wine”) have little assurance of quality. These wines are often produced in bulk for consumption within Germany.
  • Geschützte Geographische Angabe (ggA)–Previously called “Landwein,” this category is a step up from “wein,” but is not considered quality wine by the German regulating bodies. 
  • Geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (gU)–The quality wine category of Geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung is divided into two sub-categories:
    • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), meaning “quality wine from a designated region.”
    • Prädikatswein, or “wine with special attributes,” is the highest quality level in the traditional German system. These are wine grown in one of the 13 Anbaugebiete, but with additional “attributes” based on levels of ripeness.


Ripeness level–Information on the ripeness of the grape at the time of harvest (full ripeness not begin a given in such cold climates) follows the name of the grape varietal on a traditionally labelled Prädikatswein. Ripeness of the grape is directly proportional not only to the final sweetness of the wine, but also to the potential level of alcohol in the wine. The ripeness levels (determined by specific, measured ranges of density of the grape must or juice, which in turn indicates sugar content), from least ripe to most ripe are:

  • Kabinett–Kabinett level grapes will produce the lightest wines, with alcohol levels around 7% to 10%. 
  • Spätlese–Meaning “late harvest,” spätlese wines will display more developed aromas and flavors than will kabinett wines.
  • Auslese–Auselese means “selected harvest” and indicates grapes that have been allowed to remain on the vine to beyond full ripeness. These wines will display even more intense flavors and aromas than will the previous two levels. Because of the increased sugar content in the grapes, auslese wine have potential alcohol levels in excess of 14%.
  • Beerenauslese–Meaning “selected berries,” beerenauslese grapes are not only beyond full ripeness, but may also be affected by the fungus botrytis cinerea (commonly called “noble rot” or, in German, “Edelfäule”). In most grapes, botrytis is detrimental, but in fully ripe riesling (as well as sémillon and chenin blanc), botrytis can be transformative. In these grapes, and under the correct conditions, botrytis will not only concentrate the flavors of the grapes by extracting water from the pulp, but will also contribute its own aroma and flavor akin to honeysuckle.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese–Meaning “selected dried berries,” trockenbeerenauslese grapes are exactly what they sound like…These are grapes that are over-ripe, often well on the way to being raisins. They may be further dried by the presence of botrytis. Trockenbeerenausleses (of TBAs) are among the world’s most desired dessert wines.
  • Eiswein–Eiswein (literally “ice wine”) is also exactly what it sounds like. Eiswein grapes are left on the vine not just beyond ripeness, but also to the point of freezing. The frozen grapes are harvested and crushed, still frozen. This process further removes water (in the form of ice) from the grape must, creating a super-concentrated must and very sweet wine. Because of the limited availability (and the danger in harvesting–frostbite not being uncommon), true eiswein is ALWAYS a pricey proposition.


Sweetness level–Following the grape and ripeness indications on traditional labels, an indication of sweetness may appear as one of the following levels (from dry (little or no residual sugar) to sweet):

  • Trocken–Trocken (meaning “dry”) wines contain less than .9% residual sugar (below perceptibility for most individuals).  Trocken wines on the extreme end of the range are often described as “bone-dry.”
  • Halbtrocken (also called feinherb)–With less than 1.8% residual sugar, halbtrocken wines are, as the name suggests, half-dry (or off-dry). 
  • Lieblich (or mild)–Lieblich means “delightful,” but it also means “sweet.” As such lieblich wines contain up to 5% residual sugar.


In 2002, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, or VDP) introduced a classification of Germany’s vineyards based on the vineyard classification system of Burgundy. This “modern” classification (revised in 2012) was based on the premise that, as a result of global warming, all of the best vineyard sites in Germany can now achieve full ripeness (spätlese or auslese level) in their grapes every year.

Quality controls are very specifically regulated (the details of which we will skip) for each level with the VDP system. The VDP does allow for riesling to be planted in all 13 of the Anbaugebiete (including Ahr, Baden, Württemberg, Franken, Saale Unstrut, and Sachsen–not listed in “traditional” classification above). The vineyard site classification, from lowest to highest, includes:

  • Gutswein–Gutswein is essentially entry-level “estate” or “regional” wine. The grapes used most come from an estate’s property and meet the VDP prescribed standards. Indication of this level on the label is optional.
  • Ortswein–Meaning “classified wine,” ortswein must be produced with fruit from a designated village. These wines may be labelled with one of the Prädikatswein levels, but, in an uncharacteristically imprecise turn, both the ripeness and sweetness levels for Prädikatswein indicate sweetness in the VDP system. Go figure. . . If no sweetness level is indicated, it is safe to assume that the wine is trocken (dry). 
  • Erste Lage–Meaning “first site,” the “erste Lage” classification is equivalent to “premier cru” in Burgundy. These wines are from more prestigious vineyard sites in a producer’s holdings. As with ortswein, erste Lage wines may be labelled with one of the Prädikatswein levels to indicate sweetness. If no sweetness level is indicated, it is safe to assume that the wine is trocken (dry). Erste Lage wines will include an icon of an underscored “1” and a cluster of grapes on the metal capsule.
  • Grosses Lage– Meaning “great site,” the “grosses Lage” classification is equivalent to “grand cru” in Burgundy. These wines are from the most prestigious vineyard sites in a producer’s holdings, so “grosses Lage” can be considered an assurance of excellence. Dry wines from these sites may be labeled as “grosses Gewachs” (“great growths”) indicated by the initials GG. Grapes at the kabinett level of ripeness are not permitted for use in grosses Gewachs wines.

Whew!!!! That’s a lot of information to pack onto a label–but rest assured, it is there on quality German wines. You’ll be relieved to know that riesling in the rest of the world is a much simpler affair. Outside of Germany, quality riesling is produced in:

France–France’s riesling production is effectively limited to Alsace, on the German border, south of Pfalz). Riesling is one of only four grapes permitted to be grown/labelled as “grand cru” in Alsace.  Like German wines, Alsatian wines will be varietally labelled (unless they are blends). Riesling is also one of the grapes permitted in the sparkling wine known as crémant d’Alsace.

Austria–Riesling from Austria is usually produced in a trocken/dry style, but may also be found in sweetness levels up to trockenbeerenauslese.

Italy–While not widely grown in Italy, some good riesling may be found in northern Italy, particularly in Piemonte and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

United States–The best sites for riesling in the United States are, undoubtedly, Washington State and New York State (particularly the Finger Lakes region). These can be excellent wines ranging from dry to sweet. There is some quality riesling to be found in California, mostly late-harvest, botrytis affected dessert wines from Anderson Valley (in Mendocino County) and Alexander Valley (in Sonoma County), but most California grown riesling is used in lesser quality, “jug” wines.  

Australia–As in the United States, much of the riesling grown in Australia is for cheap, often sweet, “jug” wine, but there are excellent rieslings produced in the neighboring South Australian regions of Clare Valley and Eden Valley. Both of these regions have much cooler climates than the surrounding areas, which helps riesling retain its lively acidity. While most Clare and Eden Valley bottlings are dry, botrytis affected sweet styles are also available.

New Zealand–Quality riesling, ranging from dry to sweet, is produced in several areas of New Zealand’s South Island. On the north end, Nelson and Marlborough (better known for its Sauvignon Blanc), produce some excellent rieslings. At the south end of the island, Central Otago is becoming an area to watch for riesling production. North Canterbury, in the middle of the island, also produces good quality riesling.

If you have made it this far, I certainly hope you are willing to give riesling an opportunity to surprise you with its vibrant and lively acidity and flavors. The whole gamut of taste sensations is available with this versatile grape–from totally dry, stoney, and steely to lush, honeyed, and luxurious (and everywhere in between). If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask a wine professional to help you pick out a riesling to meet your desired taste profile–then chill it down, pop it open, and enjoy the heady aromas of this truly noble grape!