What type of wine is Riesling?
From dry and crisp to deliciously sweet, the wide range of flavours in Riesling make this New Zealand’s fourth most popular white wine.
Riesling was introduced to New Zealand in the early 1800s from near the border of France and Germany. Riesling is well established in the South Island where the cooler climates and low humidity are most similar to its European home.
Riesling became very popular during the 1980s for all the wrong reasons. It was marketed as an overly sweet wine for non-wine drinkers. New Zealand Riesling from this era tended to be more sugar and less substance.
That's all changed now. Within Riesling you can now find a variety of aromas, from crisp apple and rose blossom, to bolder, citrus and stone fruit flavours like peach or lemon and lime. Today’s delicate flavours and tempered sweetness make Riesling the perfect summer wine.
What does Riesling taste like?
Climate has the biggest impact on what wine tastes like, and this is especially true for Riesling. Most New Zealand Rieslings are grown in the South Island, because the grape favours cooler climates with low humidity.
Most New Zealand Riesling is grown in Marlborough. Canterbury is the next biggest producer by a big margin, with Central Otago, Nelson and Wairarapa trailing far behind.
Marlborough Rieslings tend to be more full-bodied and dry, with a hint of sweetness. You’re also more likely to find hints of lemon and lime, or a gentle cinnamon spiciness.
Nelson sits at the very top of New Zealand’s South Island, where the weather is slightly warmer than Marlborough. In Nelson Riesling you’re more likely to find stone fruit flavours like peach and apricot.
The cooler weather in Central Otago, combined with the stony, gravelly soil can make Rieslings lighter in alcohol and markedly sweeter. Within Rieslings from cooler climates like Central Otago, you’re more likely to taste green apple and lime citrus.
Comparing German and New Zealand Rieslings
Within Riesling, and German Riesling especially, you’ll find a number of classifications. These give you an idea of where the wine sits on the scale of crisp to sweet. German Kabinett and Spatlese Riesling have only residual sugary flavours, allowing you to focus on the floral aromas and flavours of apple, pear, peach and apricot.
Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling all fall into the dessert or sweet wine category. Wine makers wait until the grapes are overripe and a little shrivelled before picking. By waiting, the grapes lose some of their water content, making the sugar more concentrated.
Winemakers can introduce a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea, also known as Noble Rot to infest the grapes. With a similar effect to overripening, the fungus shrivels the grapes, so they become less watery and more sugary. Noble Rot also introduces ginger and honey flavours to the wine.
Of course, you can find New Zealand Rieslings that will fall into all of these categories. Generally, most New Zealand Riesling leans towards an off-dry style. Plenty of strong fruity aroma and citrus flavours, with just a touch of residual sugar to balance the freshness and acidity.
New Zealand Riesling can be very refreshing and light while young, but it can develop more complexity if you let it age.
Riesling compared to other white wines
Want to know more about white wine? Let’s look at how Riesling compares to some of the other wines you’ll find on the shelves of your local New World.
Riesling vs Chardonnay
Colour is a big giveaway when comparing Riesling with Chardonnay. The pale lemon or gold colours of Chardonnay are often picked up from the oak barrels it's often aged in. You’ll taste flavours of vanilla, with wooden or nutty aromas. By comparison, Riesling is much lighter and fruitier.
Riesling vs Sauvignon Blanc
These two white wine varieties can be similar. They are both fairly acidic and aromatic. However, the aroma of Sauvignon Blanc leans towards tropical fruits while Riesling is more stone fruit. If you can smell passionfruit, guava, and hints of fresh grass, you have a Sauvignon Blanc. If instead you find crisp apple, peach, apricot or citrus, you have a Riesling.
Riesling vs Gewürztraminer
These two are both rather sweet and fruity. If you like Riesling there is a good chance you’ll also be a fan of Gewürztraminer. What sets Gewürztraminer apart is a distinctive spicy cinnamon-like flavour and sometimes a touch of bitterness. Gewürztraminer also has a unique aroma of lychee and rose petals, that you won’t find in Riesling.
Moscato vs Riesling
While some Riesling can fall into the sweet or dessert wine category, Moscato is almost exclusively a dessert wine. Like Riesling, Moscato is very fruity, but with a signature grapefruit aroma. Unlike Riesling, Moscato does not have the acidity to balance out that sweetness. Because of the sugar and acidity in quality Riesling, you can store it for many years. Moscato on the other hand is unlikely to last more than five.
Pinot Gris vs Riesling
As an aromatic wine, one of Riesling’s strong qualities is the flavour of the grape shining through. While Pinot Gris shares some of Riesling’s sweetness, it has much less acidity and is more likely to be barrel aged. That wood contact lends Pinot Gris a more waxy mouthfeel, plus flavours of bread and honeysuckle that you’re unlikely to find in Riesling.
Best New Zealand Rieslings
Tohu Single Vineyard Riesling 2017
Producing estate-grown single vineyard wines since 1998, this Riesling instantly appeals with citrus flavours and just the slightest suggestion of sweetness at the end.
Stoneleigh Marlborough Riesling 2019
Beautifully made with floral and grapefruit aromas, the palate sings of lime peel and gala apple flavours with sweetness and balancing vibrant acidity.
Giesen Estate Riesling 2018
With concentrated flavours of green apple and lime zest that gently whispers sweetness, ‘wine speak’ would describe it as being refined and stylish, the rest of us would call it a mesmerising great wine.
Riesling nutrition per 150ml glass (1 serving)
White wines tend to have lower alcohol levels compared to red wine, and therefore fewer calories. Also, drier white wines generally have fewer calories than sweeter white wines, because they contain less sugar.
So the number of calories in your glass of Riesling could vary wildly depending on how sweet it is. In a 150ml glass, a dry Riesling could contain 123 calories, while a very sweet Riesling could have as many as 225.
5.6 grams per serving
Most Rieslings fall within the 10.5% to 12% alcohol range.
1.5 - 10 grams per serving
How long can you store an unopened bottle of Riesling?
Riesling is one of the few white wines that will get better with age, and allow you to age it for a significant amount of time. We’ve already mentioned that Riesling is a wine high in sugar and acidity, and these two factors act as natural preservatives.
So if you have bought a young Riesling and want to mature it to encourage more complex flavours to develop, find a cool, dark space out of direct sunlight. As much as we would all love a private wine cellar, you may want to look at a wine rack at the back of a kitchen cupboard.
Ideal Riesling storage conditions?
As with all wines, you should store the bottle on its side so the liquid lies up against the cork.
Once you have found a cool spot for storage and have set up your wine rack, a quality Riesling will age upwards of ten years. Just make sure it’s nice and dark, and temperatures don’t rise above 15 degrees Celsius.
How long will an opened bottle of Riesling last?After opening your Riesling, keep it in the fridge and make sure you consume it within 3 days. You should only open a bottle you intend to finish reasonably soon. Easily done if you’re hosting a dinner party with friends, but if you’re just planning on having one glass on the weekend be prepared for the taste of your Riesling to change over time.
How to tell if your Riesling has “gone bad” ?
It’s normal to notice changes in the taste and aroma of your wine, especially with a wine as aromatic as Riesling. Just notice the difference between a glass freshly chilled and poured, compared to one that’s warmed a little to the room and has had a chance to breathe. You should notice a greater depth of flavour and a wider variety of aromas on the nose. Those are good changes.
If your Riesling has “gone bad” the changes will be very different. Instead of the wonderful stone fruit smells Riesling is famous for, you may notice a whiff that’s closer to wet cardboard. The colour may also have changed to a darker yellow. These are very clear signs your Riesling has sat in the fridge for too long and is no longer good to drink.
If that’s the case, the high acidity content of Riesling, plus it’s lower alcohol content means it performs very well as a white wine vinegar. To transform your leftover Riesling into vinegar, leave it in a warm place for a few weeks so it can oxidise.
Unless you love the smell of oxidising wine, you may not want to do this in the living room. Also, place a cheese cloth secured by a rubber band over the neck of the bottle. This will allow the Riesling to breathe while preventing insects making their way in.
As with any white wine, serve your Riesling slightly chilled. Not too cold, as Riesling is a very aromatic wine. Very cold temperatures will close up Riesling’s aromatic bouquet and stop you from experiencing the full range of delicious flavours.
Place your bottle of Riesling in the fridge for approximately two hours, and serve it anywhere between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius. Better quality Rieslings require less time in the fridge. Again, this is to allow them to showcase the full range of their flavours.
Riesling is one white wine you can get away with serving in a red wine glass. Try this for yourself. Pour two glasses of Riesling; one into your classic white wine glass, and one into a red wine glass. Take turns gently nosing each glass and see if you can notice any changes.
Because Riesling is such an aromatic wine, some wine connoisseurs want to make sure they capture as much of those wonderful aromas as possible. Classic red wine glasses are typically much wider at the base of the glass than they are at the rim. This shape traps more vapour inside the glass, allowing you to smell more of your Riesling’s delicious flavours.
Refreshingly light New Zealand Riesling compliments fish, seafood, and lighter chicken dishes. At the same time, the acidity and freshness of Riesling will cut through heavier or slightly spicy dishes.
South Asian Cuisine
Rieslings down the ‘dry’ end of the spectrum like Kabinett or Spatlese work well with Asian cuisines. The lower alcohol content, fruity flavours and acidic freshness will carry through Thai curries, smoked meats, or hearty pork entrees. The sugars in the wine counter the heat in the dish, while the chillies make the Riesling seem less sweet.
If you love Japanese cuisine, try pairing some of your favourite dishes with Riesling. Seafood fans dining on tuna, salmon, or smoked eel will find the crispness of the Riesling cuts through some of the fattier elements of these fish, while combating any spicy elements. If you prefer your sushi or Japanese curry with chicken, you’ll find the Riesling pairs just as well.
Sweeter Rieslings like the Auslese or Beerenauslese varieties have higher sugar levels which make the fruitier notes of this white wine sing. This is what you’d serve when putting together a seafood platter with crab, crayfish and scallops.
If you’re pairing Riesling with a cheese platter, choose saltier cheese that will balance the sweetness. Look for blue cheese, aged gouda, feta or havarti. The varieties and flavours within Riesling make this a wine that stands up to the formalities of a three course dinner, but is also perfect for sitting on the couch with fish and chips on a Friday.
Alternatively, these Riesling varieties will also wait until the end of your meal, enhancing your dessert’s fruity flavours. Think caramel sauce, apple pie, peaches and cream or tropical fruits.
Riesling - the perfect Summer wine
It’s little wonder Riesling is so popular in New Zealand. From dry and crisp to deliciously sweet, the wide range of flavours in Riesling make this the perfect Summer wine.