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What Are Riesling Grapes?

A close look at clusters of ripe Riesling grapes.

One isn’t going to find Riesling grapes in a supermarket, and the reason for that is because they are specifically a wine grape. Wine grapes are meatier and smaller than your average table grape. They’ll possess a thicker skin and are riddled with tiny seeds — not ideal for snacking. They’re among the prestigious family of wine grapes (like champagne grapes) and have been around for ages.

Related: Champagne Grapes | Types of Grapes | Concord Grapes | Different Berry Flowers 

History of the Grape

The first-ever reference to a Riesling grape was discovered in documents from 1402, where a journal entry from a citizen of Worms, Germany, mentioned a rüssling vine. Another account comes from 1435, where Count Join IV of Katzeneinbogen (well that’s a fun word to say), wherein an inventory of purchases he states “22 shillings for riesling vine cuttings for the vineyard.” These grapes have been used in winemaking practices for centuries, and there’s a good reason for it. (Townhall of Bremen, Germany, stores a barrel of Riesling that dates back to 1653!)

Where They Are Grown

This is a close look at Riesling grape vines at a vineyard.

Riesling grapes originated from the Rhine region. The Rhine is a major European river, the source starting in Switzerland, and flowing through Germany, the Netherlands, and into the North Sea. There’s a specific term for wine grapes, terroir-expressive, this translates to “expressive of the land”. The soil in the Rhine region is incredibly rich with minerals and thus is expressed in the flavor of the grape itself.

Riesling Characteristics

The cool climate of Germany is supportive of very fresh flavors where Riesling grapes thrive due to their resilience against frost. The cold encourages flavors of green apple, ripening citrus, young peaches, and green grass. The scent is almost like a perfume in its intensity, pungently floral, and the grape’s acidity is noticed by the nose as well as the tongue.

The Riesling grape is so unique that it is never used for blended wine, and it is never aged in oak barrels, for that process would taint the Riesling’s unique flavor. It is considered among the top three choices for winemaking, along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

In winemaking, something called the Brix Level is referred to. This is a scale that measures the percentage of sugar in a liquid, of which there is ample amount in Riesling grapes. This makes them the absolute prime option for cellaring, as the high sugar content acts as a very effective preservative. To obtain a dry wine, it will be aged 5-15 years. For a semi-sweet wine; 10-20 years, and for an absurdly sweet wine; 10-30+ years! Imagine what the wine from that 367-year-old barrel would taste like!

The Fun Facts

This is a close look at a cluster of ripe Riesling grapes.

The Germans actually refer to the grapes as different names throughout their life cycle. They are usually ripened between late September to late November, but they are so versatile in taste that they often experiment with different levels of ripeness. The earlier pickings are classified as Kabinett grapes, to achieve a bone dry wine (early to mid-September harvesting).

Spotless and Auslese grapes are for a moderately sweet wine (mid-September to mid-November), Beerenauslese refers to grapes picked from mid to late November, and Trockenbeerenauslese is often picked after the first snow, to achieve the sweetest grape possible.

Riesling grapes are particularly susceptible to noble rot. This is a specific type of fungus called botrytis cinerea, that occurs to plants that grow in clusters. It causes evaporation of fruits water content, leaving behind sickening levels of sugar content. The fungus grows in the late harvest season, so Trockenbeerenauslese grapes are riddled with noble rot.

Intensely sweet grapes like this are used for dessert wines, which are considerably more expensive. Another way to achieve that level of sweetness is by freezing the grapes after a late harvest. This is where the term “ice wine” comes from, it’s so thick and sugary it reminiscent of maple syrup poured over ice onto a popsicle stick. (Anyone who has been to a Sugar Shack will know what I’m talking about)

Are the Rumours True?

Clusters of Riesling grapes and wine on a wooden table overlooking the valley.

Yes, yes they are. Riesling is notorious for having a petrol taste to it, which understandably turns people off. It used to be considered as a flaw in the wine, even so far as assuming that the entire barrel was off. That was until it was discovered that a certain compound was discovered in its aging process.

The compound is called TDN (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydro naphthalene — I am so sorry I promise I’ll never make you read that again), and it develops during the aging process. The compound itself creates ample amounts of carotenoids, which are responsible for the pigment in plant life.

This flood of TDN is due to climate factors, like high sun exposure and draught. Since Riesling is usually picked extremely late in the season, the grapes are seething with TDN!

There is something called the Wine Aroma Wheel, and it was specifically adapted for German wines when they added petrol as a characteristic of wine taste and scent!


Can you eat Riesling grapes?

Yes, and no. They are edible, but that is not their primary purpose. They have a thicker skin and lots of seeds, making them not an ideal choice for snacking.

Why is dessert wine darker?

This is due to the fact that the grapes used for dessert wine are often past ideal ripeness, and have far higher sugar content. When water is removed, we’re often left with nothing but color and flavor.

Where do Riesling grapes grow?

Their original location is in the Rhine region, but the practice has been perfected by the Germans. Their flavor is dependent on a colder climate, so the grape can also be grown near the Finger Lakes of New York.

Where can you buy Riesling grapes?