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History of the Riesling Grape

Knowledgeable wine drinkers have always known that the Riesling grape, grown in a few select places in Germany, produces some of the finest wines available. In terms of quality, delicacy, charm, and style, the German Riesling can compete with any wine produced in the world. Unfortunately, appreciation for the wine among the general wine drinking public is not now, nor has it ever been, as enthusiastic as it should be. The history of the grape is almost as much of an enigma as its lack of popularity.

The derivation of the word Riesling is still not clear. One theory connects it to the characteristics of the vine. For example, “Russ” means dark wood and the Riesling vine consists of strong dark wood; also the bark has deep grooves with the resultant root word “rissig”. The most likely connection is a negative characteristic of the Riesling, namely, its poor flowering propensity in cool weather which is described by the German words verrieseln or durchrieseln.

Its origin is a mystery, but it is believed that the grape is indigenous to Germany. Interest in the varietal probably began in the early fourteenth century with the gradual shift of plantings from red to white grapes. This tradition was slow and sporadic and continued until the seventeenth century when the monks ( how often monks have played a role in wine history is remarkable ) of the Cistercian monastery at Eberbach discovered that the transparent Rheingau reds could not compete with the deeply colored French wines. Consequently they ordered their tenant growers to use only white wine plantings and to remove all else. Exactly what variety of grape the monks wanted planted was not stated but it is believed to be Riesling since by this time the qualities of the grape had become known.

The first documented evidence we have of the varietal was a sale that took place on March 13, 1435. The cellar log of Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim shows that Klaus Kleinfish sold the Count six vines of Riesling for 22 solidi. There are many other contenders for the honor of “first planting” ( the Wachau in Austria, Westhofen in Rheinhessen and the Alsace region all contend with dates of 1232, 1402, and 1348 respectively, to name just a few), but all this means is that from the mid-fourteenth century Riesling was becoming popular. In 1464 twelve hundred “Ruesseling” vines were purchased by the St. Jacob Hospice, today, part of the Vereinigte Hospitien of Trier. A specific vineyard in Worms “Ruessling hinder Kirssgarten” (Riesling behind the cherry orchard) was described in 1490, and a “Rissling wingart” at Pfeddersheim in the Rheinhessen in 1511, attests to the spread of the grape.

Evidently Hieronymus Bock was aware of the grape as a Latin version of his book on herbs (1552) describes it. Surprisingly the modern spelling of the word is used.(It is nice to speculate that his painting the “Garden of Delights” was in some ways inspired by an excessive but wonderful evening with Riesling wine.) A later version of this book (1577) stated that “Riesling was growing in the Mosel, the Rhein, and the environs of Worms”. By the seventeenth century “Ruessling”, according to a journal published in 1703, was planted throughout the Palatinate.

The most important development in the spread of Riesling as the “grape of Germany” took place at the Benedictine Abbey in Johannisberg in the Rheingau.In 1716 the Prince-Abbey of Fulda purchased the rundown priory. The vineyards, which were in total neglect, were completely restored and replanted with Riesling vines within five years. In 1720/21 294,000 vines were planted. The vines were purchased from Ruedesheim, Eberbach, and Floersheim, further indicating the extent of the grape. Schloss Johannisberg, of course, set the standards for the grape, and other areas soon decreed that Riesling should be the grape planted. In 1744, for example, the Bishop of Speyer, Cardinal Christoph von Hutten insisted upon the destruction of Elbling vines and the planting of Riesling. Even more important was the proclamation of Clemens Wenzeslaus, Elector of Trier, on May 8,1787 that all inferior vines be dug up and replanted with noble varietals. He meant Riesling, and the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area celebrates this year as the bi-centennial of the Wenzeslaus pronouncement.

The examples of Johannisberg and Wenzeslaus started a Riesling boom in the Rheingau and the Mosel. The wines were so successful that by the turn of the century the Benedictine Monk Odo Staab at Johannisberg, could claim that “other than Riesling no other varietal should be used to produce wines in the Rheingau.” By the end of the 19th century it was the dominant grape in the Rheingau, and it had made significant inroads in all other growing areas of Germany.

Sadly, a reversal of this trend began in the early 20th century as German growers, spurred by new trends in science, began experimenting with various varietals such as Silvaner. By 1930, only 57% of the vines planted in the Rheingau were Riesling. Today this trend has been reversed for all the significant classic vineyards in Germany. The areas were Riesling produces superior wines such as the Rheingau and the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer are now, once again, being recognized as having an important historical and viticultural place in Germany. Consequently, wine grower in these and other areas have joined together to decree that Riesling is the great wine grape of Germany. By far the most significant of these groups is V.D.P.(the association of German Predicate and Quality wine producers), a collection of growers dedicated to producing only the finest wines. Pro-Riesling is a new organization that includes many V.D.P. members. As spokesmen for the Riesling, these producers wines are the best advertisements for what Riesling is all about.

Recognition for the quality of the Riesling grape must continue to grow. It should be considered a national treasure and accorded the same status in Germany and the rest of the world as the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes of Burgundy and the Cabernet Sauvignon grape of Bordeaux. Perhaps, with the continual efforts of growers such as the V.D.P. the rest of the wine world will recognize the treasures this grape is capable of producing.

Riesling is a varietal whose time has come. Appealing to the novice wine drinker, its wines should be of even greater interest to the connoisseur. It offers the palate a wine of great delicacy and finesse with a nerviness and piercing quality that only Riesling can deliver. Each growing area of Germany imparts its own special character and attributes to the Riesling. In great vintages the Saar and Ruwer produce spectacularly aristocratic white wines that have no peer. On the Mosel the wines are wonderfully floral and supremely elegant. Rheingau Riesling is more substantial, more masculine but also very fine. Nahe Riesling offers the crisp acidity and liveliness of a Mosel but also the firm body of a Rheingau. The Middle Haardt of the Pfalz offers Rieslings that are rich, plump and taste of apricots, peaches and honey. In Franconia, Wërttemberg and Baden the wines are full-bodied and earthy. With the higher potential alcohol the wines are usually finished dry. Jancis Robinson in her book “VINES, GRAPES and WINES” puts it very well indeed: “Riesling produces wines of unbeatable quality, wines that are indisputably aristocratic and ludicrously unfashionable”.