The history of the Riesling vine can be traced back to Germany
and the year 1435. The first documented evidence comes from
the cellar log of Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim on
13th March 1435, when Klaus Kleinfish purchased six Riesling
vines for the sum of 22 solidi. There are other supposed 'first
plantings' but without the documented evidence: Wachau in
Austria in 1232, Westhofen in Rheinhessen in 1402 and Alsace
in 1348. An undocumented tale of Riesling from the 14th century
has the Cistercian Monks at Eberbach disappointed in
their light Rheingau reds compared to the French reds. Their
instruction to their growers to remove all plantings other than
the white vines ensured the spread of the Riesling vine.
In 1464 the St Jacob Hospice in Trier purchased 1,200
'Ruesseling' vines. 1490 sees another reference to 'Ruessling
hinder Kirssgarten' (Riesling behind the cherry orchard) and a
'Rissling wingart' at Pfeddersheim in 1511 shows that Riesling
was starting to spread.
The name Riesling seems a bit harder to clarify. 'Russ' means
dark wood and this along with the grooved bark gives the resultant
root word 'rissig'. Another likely reference relates to
Rieslings poor flowering in cold weather which is described by
the German words 'verrieseln' or 'durchrieseln'.
Hieronymus Bock refers to Riesling in 1552 and also in a later
version of his book on herbs in 1577 he mentions Riesling
growing in 'the Mosel, the Rhein and the environs or Worms'.
In 1716 the Prince-Abbey of Fulda purchased the rundown
Benedictine Abbey in Johannisberg in the Rheingau. 294,000
Riesling vines from Ruedesheim, Eberbach, and Floersheim
were planted during 1720 to 1721 to replace the neglected
plantings. Clemens Wenzeslaus, Elector of Trier, on 8th May
1787 proclaimed at all inferior vines be dug up and replanted
with noble (Riesling) varieties.
By the end of the 19th century Riesling was the dominant variety
in the Rheingau and was significant in the rest of Germany.
The early 20th century saw Riesling declining in Germany with
only 57% of the Rheingau planted to Riesling in 1930. This
trend was reversed during the rest of the century and now Riesling
is treated as a national treasure. The push is now to think
of Riesling in Germany as you do Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
in Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.
The first reference to Riesling in Australia is in 1820. William
Macarthur planted 20 acres of vineyards at Camden Park near
Penrith in NSW. The commercial plantings included: Pineau
Gris, Frontignac, Gouais, Verdelho, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling,
Grenache and Mataro. October 1837 sees Johann Stein
and 5 other 'vinedressers' arrive in Australia from Germany
under a 5-year contract with William Macarthur and successfully
introduce Rhine Riesling into Australia. Penfolds Wines
purchases 'Minchinbury' in 1912 and expands the vineyards to
over 400 acres of old and new varieties including: Verdelho,
Riesling, Cabernet Riesling, Pinot Noir, Hermitage, Traminer
and Pinot Blanc. Then we come to the 1970's where the combination
of the new invention called the wine cask and sweet
fruity styles such as Gewürztraminer, Gewürztraminer Riesling, and Rhine Riesling ensured the Riesling boom in Australia.
Incidentally, Angoves first introduced the wine cask in
The legend of sweet Riesling is generally accredited to
Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau who 'accidentally'
created their first 'Spatlese' or late harvest in 1775. The legend
goes that the messenger bringing the official order to
start picking was robbed on the way. By the time he arrived
the grapes had rotted, been infected with Botrytis and were
given to the peasants. The peasants brewed their own wonderful
wines and the rest is history. It's the Riesling grapes
ability to develop high sugar levels while maintaining acidity
that produces white wines that age very well. Riesling is produced
from dry to very sweet. The sweet, botrytis affected
wines are rated in ascending order of sweetness as: Auslese,
Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
Riesling means different things to different people. In Australia
the word Riesling has traditionally referred to any
sweet wine variety. Stricter labelling laws now ensure that
when you see Riesling on the label you do get Riesling.
Riesling has suffered the unfortunate association with sweet,
white cask wine. Only the last ten years or so has seen Riesling
coming back into fashion as a crisp, clean white winedrink.
The lime and citrus flavours in the cooler climate
Rieslings make a wonderful summer drink.
A true Riesling in California is referred to as a Johannisberg
Riesling. Gray Riesling and Emerald Rieslings are different
varieties and Sylvaner is commonly called Sylvaner Riesling,
Franken Riesling, Monterey Riesling and even Sonoma
Riesling. Parts of Europe have a Welschriesling or Italian
Riesling but this is a different variety. South Africans have
Cape Riesling, Clare Riesling, Paarl Riesling and South African
Riesling which are all really Cruchen Blanc. Weisser
Riesling is what you have to look for to find a true Riesling.
Even in Rieslings homeland Germany, Schwarzriesling is in
reality the variety Müllerrebe (Meunier) and the variety Rulander
is called Grauer Riesling. And to confuse matters
even more, there are several Riesling hybrids of which the
most famous is a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner called
Müller-Thurgau. Other names that Riesling answers to in
Germany include: Johannisberger, Klingelberger, Riesling
Renano, and White Riesling.
And it's not just the vines that have different names. The
wine itself has many names in different countries including:
Italy (Riesling Italico); Austria (Welschriesling); Hungary
(Olasz Rizling); Rumania (Riesling de Italic); Bulgaria
(Italiansky Rizling); Yugoslavia (Laski Rizling); Czechoslovakia
(Rizling Vlassky) and Russia (Risling Italianski).
- Recent DNA fingerprinting has in fact determined that the grape was created by crossing Riesling with Madeleine Royale, not Silvaner (Ed)
- Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery