Austrian vs. German Riesling: Why Does This Wine Taste Like This?

Austrian vs. German Riesling: Why Does This Wine Taste Like This?

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Riesling is often painted with a broad brush. It’s said to be “sweet” or “fruity” or “flowery” or “petrol-y”. And it is all of those things (even the gasoline bit), but it’s not all of those things all of the time. Because the fact of the matter is riesling is planted all over the world, and it takes on very different characteristics based on where it’s from.

Two places riesling calls home are Germany and Austria. The two countries share a language, a 500-mile border, and a fondness for schnitzel. But despite all that, the same grape – riesling – yields two different styles of wine. Here’s why…

The Grapes

Germany: Riesling.

Austria: Riesling.

The Difference: Well, technically, nothing. Riesling has certain inherent traits that are on display whether it’s grown in the Mosel or Wachau or New Jersey. The wines have exceedingly high acidity, intense aromas of citrus fruits and white flowers, and lots of minerality (like wet stones, in a good way). With that said, riesling is light and delicate, leaving itself highly susceptible to differences in climate and winemaking styles.

The Climate

Germany: Generally, cold.

Austria: Generally, not as cold.

The Difference: The best wine regions in Germany have colder and harsher climates than those of Austria. As a result, German riesling doesn’t get as ripe. This leads to wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol. Broadly speaking, if German wines are precise and focused, Austrian riesling is denser and softer.

The Winemaking

Germany: A tradition of making riesling at all sweetness levels, from bone-dry to very sweet.

Austria: Focus on dry riesling.

The Difference: While some German riesling is made “Trocken” – a legal term ensuring that the wine is dry – many winemakers opt to stop fermentation early in order to retain some degree of sweetness. These wines are labeled “Kabinett”, “Spatlese”, and sweeter still is “Auslese”. The more sugar left in the wine, the lower the alcohol, so you’ll often see German riesling with ABV below 10%. These wines are highly aromatic, but they have less meat on their bones than their Austrian counterparts.

While decisions around residual sugar are at the heart of German riesling production, the vast majority of Austrian riesling is fermented totally dry. Wines from the country’s best region, Wachau, are often labeled “Federspiel” or “Smaragd”. Both indicate dryness, with the former used for medium-bodied wines, and the latter for fuller and richer styles.

The X-Factors

Then there are less clear-cut factors that cause differences between the countries’ rieslings. For example, yield limitations and soil types both play roles. Are either worth discussing in detail? No. But if you want to do a deep dive on the effects of slate versus loess on riesling’s minerality profile, we won’t stop you.

There’s also the fact that riesling is the crown jewel of German wine, while it plays a distant second fiddle to grüner veltliner in Austria. Some of Austria’s premier vineyards and some of its marquee winemakers are devoted to gruner. Riesling doesn’t have any real competition in Germany.

With that said, the very best producers from both countries – Keller, Dönnhoff, and Stein in Germany; F.X. Pichler, Prager, Veyder-Malberg, and Emmerich Knoll in Austria – require an asterisk and footnote. They don’t make riesling indicative of Germany or Austria. They make riesling that’s unique to their vineyards and sensibilities. Simply put, they make the best riesling on earth.

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