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Riesling is an aromatic white grape, full of flavour, sugar and acid. The experts would say that it's very "terroir specific". What they mean is Riesling tastes like where it is grown, the climate, soil type and how it is treated. Riesling is a great grape because it keeps its acidity, even when very ripe and sugary. This means that even sweet wines will not taste overly cloying because they'll be balanced with a nice freshness. Riesling doesn't like being oaked however; it has enough aromatic flavours of its own.
Cold climates need hardy grapes and Riesling will cheerfully grow in colder countries such as Germany, Alsace in North East France, Austria and even the UK. This doesn't mean it hates warm weather though. It also grows happily in Australia, New Zealand and South America. Riesling is extremely versatile, making wines that range from crisp and dry, to very sweet dessert wines. If you have tried Riesling before and didn't like it, try another style. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Acid and sugar are great preservatives and the little Riesling grape is packed full of both. This means Riesling wines can age really well, developing flavours of honey, smoke and sometimes even petrol. Sounds unpleasant? On the contrary, drinking an aged Riesling can be a real sensory treat.
Like Chardonnay, Riesling will take on the character of where it is grown so Rieslings from cooler climates are full of grape, apple and honey flavours, whereas Australian Rieslings can taste more of limes and citrus when young. There are some lovely Rieslings being produced in Marlborough and Nelson in New Zealand too, although you may end up paying a premium for the name of the area. Try Riesling from Chile and Argentina, where it's often blended with other white grapes such as Chardonnay or Viognier.
Great dessert wine can be made out of rotten Riesling. Natural fungus called Botrytis is encouraged to grow on the grapes, normally in humid or misty conditions. The fungus sucks the water out of the grapes, concentrates the sugars and imparts its own unique honeysuckle flavours. Because rotten grapes are delicate they need to be picked by hand over several days because the grapes will ripen at different times. This pushes up the price of Botrytis wines. If you don't like the thought of eating rotten Riesling grapes, try drinking them instead!
If you buy a bottle of Riesling, you expect it to be Riesling right? Well, take care. There are a number of impostors out there. True Riesling sometimes calls itself Rhine Riesling when it's sold in New World Countries to distinguish it from Hunter Valley Riesling, which is really Semillon or Cape Riesling, which is Crouchen Blanc. You shouldn't find these in the UK though as they are not allowed to be exported into the EU. Welschriesling is allowed in but it's a completely unrelated grape to real Riesling!