Riesling was born as a result of a "one-spring-stand" between Gouais Blanc & Traminer somewhere along the banks of the Rhine river back in the Middle-Ages. Riesling's daddy, Gouais Blanc AKA Weißer Heunisch, is also nicknamed the Casanova of grapes because of his reputation of cross-fertilizing around like a maniac. Consider this:
Gouais Blanc is also the "genitor" of Chardonnay, Aligoté, Melon, Gamay, Colombard... all of the Pinots; Blaufränkish and 70+ other German varieties ! (1)
From its botanic birthplace somewhere along the Rhine river, (Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mittlerhein, Pfalz, Elsass/ Alsace, Baden) Riesling was first documented in the small wine region of Hessische Bergstraße on a 13th of March 1435 (2) and propagated vineyards along the Mosel & Nahe rivers, taken through the Danube river to Austria (Wachau, Kramptal, Kremstal and Vienna) and Slovakia. Italy also grows small quantities in the mountainous Südtirol/ Trentino, Alto Adige. In the mid-1800's, German settlers brought the grape in Southern Australia (Clare Valley, Eden Valley) and others to the US (Washington State, Oregon, California), Canada... but Germany remains the largest producer by far with some 23,000 ha.
Resistant to harsh winters and budding after spring frosts, Riesling grows best in cool climates where it can give generous yields of high quality fruit that can be picked late when dry autumns permit it. Riesling is also sensitive to soil types and can express terroir like very few other grapes. Riesling tolerates moderate climates when grown on the coolest sites or it will not develop its typical aromatic character. When barely ripe, Riesling gives wines with delicate floral scents, searing acidity and low levels of sugar which may or may not be fermented to dryness, and may or may not be sweetened with Süßreserve before bottling. More ripeness means different flavor profile from citrus to stone fruit and tropical fruit, along with more sugar in the grape, yielding potential for more sweetness or alcohol and body in the finished wine. In the winery, most winemaker will work to preserve the natural purity of its flavors, which means fermentation and maturation occur in inert vessels.
In places where the growing season is particularly hot, with clear bright skies, if the grapes retain high acidity, and the wine is fermented with particular strains of yeast, notes of "petrol" or "kerosene" may occur after time in the bottle. This scent is due to the occurrence of T.D.N., short for trimethyl dihydronaphtalene.
When picked late (Vendanges Tardives, Spätlese, Auslese), rotten by botrytis (Sélection de Grains Nobles, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerrenauslese) it gives sweet & sour wines with scents of dried apricot, orange marmalade, raisin, ginger, honey, bees wax.... If picked after 3 straight days of frost, tiny quantities of sweet Eiswein can be made.
Back in the 19th century, Riesling-based wines, dry or sweet were incredibly sought after and fetched high prices. To illustrate, the wine list below shows a 1893 Maximin-Grünhäuser priced at 15.00 DM (Deutsche Mark) which is 5 times the price of Château Latour and 3 times the price of Château Lafite!
This other wine list is from Delmonico's (New York) dating back from 1900-1914. Notice the Schloss Johannisberger Cabinet Prince Metternich 1895 is priced at $9.00, whereas Château Margaux 1888 is sold at $5.50 and Ruinart Champagne costs $4.50!
Today, Riesling is arguably one of the most under-rated grape variety. From the light, off-dry floral versions of Mosel to the dry full-bodied Alsatian examples with all levels of sweetness from late harvested, botrytized or frozen grapes, Riesling offers amazing choices with or without food pairing.
Notes: 1. The grapevine is an hermaphrodite plant, meaning its flowers have both male and female organs. It is wind-pollinized, meaning if two different varieties growing side by side bloom together, with a gentle breeze, the pollen of a stamens' variety can fly out and fertilize the pistil of the other, creating a new crossing. Before human intervention for the propagation of vine (by replanting cuttings for example), the vine was animal-dispersed, meaning that birds, wild pigs or other animals eating seed-containing gapes would poop-out these seeds some place else - and these seeds would grow into new varieties, each different from its parent.
2. The date of March 13th has been retained for the celebration of International Riesling Day.
Austrian Wine Marketing Board (2020) Austrian Wine In Depth, Vienna: Austrian Wine Marketing Board Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Jarayabhand, K. (2013) German Wine - The Renaissance of Riesling & Co. Part 1, https://germanwinelover.com/2013/08/18/german-wine-the-renaissance-of-riesling-and-co-part-1/
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc
Wines of Germany (2021) https://www.germanwines.de/knowledge/grape-varieties/white-grapes/riesling/