Not all riesling is sweet, and other things to know about the versatile white wine

  • A Riesling vineyard at Smith-Madrone Winery, on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley.

    A Riesling vineyard at Smith-Madrone Winery, on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Courtesy of Matt Denny/Smith-Madrone Winery

By Dave McIntyre
The Washington Post
Posted11/18/2019 6:00 AM

Riesling is arguably the most misunderstood wine. Sommeliers, wine writers, people who spend too much of their disposable income on wine, tend to love it. And yet, "I don't like riesling -- it's too sweet," is a common refrain from casual wine drinkers, whenever I rave about it.

That's understandable. Generations of Americans favored sweet wine, and riesling fit the bill. Whether inexpensive plonk from Germany or generic white wine from California, we drank lots of it. But somewhere along the way, we learned that "dry" wine is supposed to be better. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc eclipsed riesling in U.S. vineyards and American imaginations.


Today there's a bit of a riesling renaissance in the United States. Riesling shines in certain regions, such as New York's Finger Lakes, Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula and Washington state's Columbia Valley. Some dedicated winemakers are crafting exceptional riesling in Oregon's Willamette Valley, and there are a few notable holdouts in California.

Here are several things to know about riesling and to encourage you to explore this exciting wine.

• They are not all sweet!

Riesling is a versatile wine, because it can be racy and bone dry, unctuous and sweet, and everything in between. That's why consumers can be confused -- we don't know what we're buying unless the label tells us. And it doesn't, usually. But there are clues.

Rieslings from Austria, Australia and New Zealand are almost always dry, and the rare dessert wines are usually marked as such. Dry German rieslings may be labeled as "trocken," and the top bottlings called Erste Lage or Grosses Gewachs are always dry. U.S. wineries may make a range of styles. These may be labeled as Dry or Semi-Dry, to indicate moderate sweetness, which I prefer to call fruitiness. Ripe fruit, after all, tastes sweet.

Or the back label may sport a scale indicating Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet. This scale was developed by a group or wineries called the International Riesling Foundation, and it's a little more complex than it sounds. A wine's perceptible sweetness is not just a question of how much sugar is left in the wine after fermentation. The IRF scale factors in sugar, acidity and the wine's pH level to give us an indication of how sweet or dry the wine will taste.

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• Riesling is a great food wine.

A food-wine pairing maxim pitches sweeter wine with spicy Asian foods, because the sugar in the wine moderates the food's heat. Riesling fits that, especially a semi-dry version. But the wine's key is really its fruitiness and acidity, a combination that equals versatility.

"Riesling can be made in many different styles, from low to high alcohol, from dry, to off-dry and then the many dessert styles," says Stu Smith, winemaker at Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Napa Valley's Spring Mountain. Smith-Madrone planted its riesling vineyard in 1972 and is now celebrated as one of the few riesling holdouts in the land of cabernet sauvignon. "It goes with just about any food, meat, soup or cuisine -- or all by itself."

Riesling is great with smoked fish, salads, curries, even braised beef -- one of my most memorable meals was beef braised in Riesling, with spaetzle. It may have helped that I was in Germany, of course. And if you buy a bottle that turns out to be too sweet for your taste, save it for a salty cheese or dessert.

• Riesling is a megaphone for terroir.

A conversation with a German winemaker can turn into a dizzying discourse on how a riesling from a vineyard on blue slate soils tastes different from one grown on red slate. But you don't have to be a geologist to appreciate riesling's ability to express its origins.


In cool climates, such as New York's Finger Lakes and Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula, riesling takes on a lean, racy profile. Warmer climes such as the Columbia Valley in Washington state or Napa Valley give riesling a richer body, with riper fruit flavors.

But there are differences, and U.S. riesling is especially exciting now, as winemakers explore its different expressions. Rieslings from Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes tend to have a delicate texture with an accent of lime zest, while ones from nearby Keuka Lake are richer. Brooks winery makes more than 20 rieslings, including several single-vineyard bottlings, that vividly demonstrate the terroirs and microclimates of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

• Riesling ages well.

Wine lovers who are still collectors should keep a stash of riesling in their cellars. We tend to consider white wines at their peak just a year or two after the vintage, but riesling's acidity gives it a potential for long life.

"Why do I keep making riesling?" Smith asks. "Because I love drinking it while it's young, and savor it when it's aged."

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