Long known as the national grape of Germany, this zesty little number has seen it's fair share of ups and downs of the last few decades, but is currently experiencing a huge resurgence in popularity worldwide, especially as more new world wine regions discover the appropriate places to grow the variety.
Today you can find high quality Riesling coming out of several countries around the world including Germany, France, Austria, United States, Australia, New Zealand with plantings also now spreading to South Africa and Canada.
If grapes like Chardonnay are thought of as easy to grow and winemaker influenced, then Riesling would be the opposite, difficult to grow well and with quality production highly reliant on the right vineyard location and micro-climate, stamping the wines as truly "wine made in the vineyard".
Riesling has been somewhat misunderstood as a sickly sweet variety in many of the world's markets, where for a long time only the cheapest and largest productions of the grape would ever make it to the shelves. The variety is not solely sweet, and the wines can actually be produced in all styles from sweet to bone dry, and everywhere in between depending on the location, the overall ripeness of the grapes and the winemaker's intentions.
Riesling in the Clare Valley in Australia for example is grown at elevation (400m+-1300ft+) with warm days and cool nights that allow for a ripe, yet dry final wine that is known for it's unique citrus based flavours and profile of natural acidity.
The grape's production is highly concentrated in cool climate wine regions around the world, which could be simply a Northerly location (or Southerly in the Southern Hemisphere) where the nights are often cold in the evenings during the growing season, or perhaps an wine growing area found at significant elevation in a warmer region, so that the heat is mitigated, and there is a significant swing in temperature once the sun sets.
These cold nights held slow down ripening, and retain natural acid in the Riesling grape which will then be included in the final wine to give it a zesty backbone in the dry styles, or a balancing sour taste to the sweeter styles, so they do not overwhelm the palate.
In order to keep the bright, fresh, natural fruit characters of Riesling and the mouth-watering acidity, most of the wines will be fermented in inert stainless-steel tanks that do not add any additional characters, and if the wine is matured in oak at all (not very common), it will almost always be old barrels that have been used several times before, and again are neutral in character.
The history of Riesling in it's homeland of Germany is still a little murky, though written documents have been discovered that show the grape to already be in production in the Rhine by 1435, and in Austria by 1477, as it was already well spread by that point, it likely originated sometime earlier within modern Germany.
Genetically the parents of Riesling are Gouais Blanc (one of the parents of several other famous grapes, most notably Chardonnay), and wild grapevines of the Rhine riverlands, which indicate a relation to many other noble grapes of Middle and Western Europe.
Riesling is also known for it's remarkable longevity in both sweet and dry forms, especially when either acid or sugar levels are high in the final wine, as these can act to preserve the wine and it's flavours from decay and oxidation. This effect is so prominent that even average quality productions can last for decades, with high quality examples tasted after 50-100 years showing to survive the ages. This of course is not guaranteed but appears to be far more frequent than many other un-oaked white wines around the world.
Unfortunately for Riesling, it's low natural yield and propensity to over-ripen in regions that are too warm, led it to being blended together with several high-yielding, more economical grapes, which unknown to the consumer, far out-weighed the Riesling by percentage in the final wine. When these cheap white wines were sold in the UK (the largest consumer market for Germany at the time) the public assumed these German whites were still Riesling and were absolutely revolted by the low-quality sickly sweet examples, and within just a few years, orders from the UK had all but halted and the German wine industry tanked, and has been the last several decades trying to re-position itself.
It is worth noting of course, that these wines, though large in individual production, did not at all represent the majority of winegrowers in Germany, who continued to produce high quality wine as they had always done, even if they had to sell most of it domestically until the country's reputation had been repaired.
More recently, with each passing day those who had shunned the grape, are re-discovering the majesty of Riesling, it's versatility with food pairing, how refreshing it can be on a hot day, or how well it can age.
You'll also find Riesling to be one of the most popular wines amongst wine professionals, winemakers and sommeliers.
Some examples of Riesling:
Rheingau - Hesse, Germany: Dry & sweet both produced, Pineapple -sweet, apple + citrus - dry
Mosel - Saarland + Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany: Steepest vineyards in the world, light bodied, off-dry, lime, high acid, low alcohol
Pfalz/Palatinate - Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany: Most Riesling planted in the World (15% of total), powerful, less acidic, peach + ripe citrus
Alsace - Grand Est, France: Most well-regarded grape of Alsace, large variety of soils, medium-bodied, ripe and mature, well-aged vines
Clare Valley - South Australia, Australia: Ripe, lemon, yellow-hue, dry, higher elevation to achieve cool nights in a warm country
Wachau - Niederösterreich, Austria: Long history of Riesling growth, dry, medium-bodied, mineral and acidic
Finger Lakes - New York, United States: Cool climate, glacial moraine, dry and off-dry, mineral or floral character, focused on Riesling
Columbia Valley - Washington, United States: Biggest producing area of grape in US, glacial soils, dry-sweet, apple & lime
Central Otago - Otago, New Zealand: Lime, Lemon, Off-dry with mineral characters. High acidity. Schist/Slate soils
Hope you enjoyed this little overview of one of the most diverse white wine grape varieties out there, with truly something for everyone and an ever-growing focus on quality and character.